I was so determined to be productive. Determined to straddle myself atop of the work, to ride her bareback and send portentous messages of warning to anyone who got in the way. I wanted to dive in, to suffocate myself with this novel of mine and damn the musts, those hairy gremlins who inevitably rise up, powering their brigade with guilt and self-admonishment. Suffocation was easy under these determinants. I could not breathe. I could not sleep. I could not work. I bled out, failing to remember that I only needed to bring the right weapon, the appropriate tools to get the job done.
Don’t bring a cap pistol to a knife fight, I hear Joni Mitchell saying.
I know, it’s an odd and somewhat brutish trope for the creative process. How often are we lucky enough to respond with the right words, the right sentiment, to deliver the ego-less wisdom and the humility that certain situations call for? Conflict—inner or outer—can be dismantled neatly and efficiently with the appropriate response. But how do we know what the appropriate response is when there is an agenda in place, our agenda, that we are dearly attached to?
So there we were: Southwest Harbor, Maine. It was July 2nd, and my husband Michael and I were looking at five days of FREE room and board, thanks to a friend of Michael’s who was going out of town and offered her abode to us for a ‘retreat.’ As anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows, summer in Maine is an exquisite experience. Mt. Desert Island? All we need are groceries? July 4th week? Wow! I felt like I had won the lottery and the toaster. We secured our bikes to the Subaru and drove north, taking our time and unwinding from a busy week-end of moving me out of my old office space.
Because I had closed my office to take a “sabbatical” [this word is in quotes because I feel like professors are the only ones allowed to use this term], I thought that the home of a very successful playwright would be the perfect setting to usher in the shiny new commitment for finishing my novel. Not finishing the entire thing, there in Southwest Harbor, just commencing the finishing. I was close, and as the bing-bong bell of awareness clanged in my brain, reminding me that I was approaching the anniversary of attaining my MFA, I sensed an urgency that I had never felt before.
An urgency to finish, or die. What had I done, exactly, since I graduated?
You see, I’ve been writing this novel of mine for over a decade. Yep, I am one of “those” writers. There’s no shame in my game, especially now that I am so close to finishing. I have written and re-written, changed point of view three times, tweaked time frames twice and moved my characters from Maine to North Carolina and to some ethereal place called “the Ballroom.” And when we packed the car for our free getaway to MDI, I packed my poster board which I had designated for story-boarding, my color-coded markers for those three narrative voices, my computer, and all of the notebooks in which I free-write in, penning the tale initially in longhand, before I edit-type it into the computer. I brought several magazines and four new novels. I brought my yoga mat and my eye mask, ear plugs and melatonin. I was prepared for battle, to climb up there on that wild pony and get ‘er done.
I’ll bet you are wondering what happened. If you are, then I am a decent story-teller. Because no raconteur can spew the goods if her audience isn’t wondering, hankering, waiting for What Happens Next. Well, I’d mistakenly brought a cap pistol to a knife fight.
I didn’t write one word. Oh maybe some words of self-laceration in my journal about how I wasn’t writing. I walked the yard and visited the spirits of the land, got some good advice from a young Maple. I placidly watched the Red Sox with my husband—a treat since we don’t have cable at home. We both walked to the Southwest Harbor Library one morning and discovered it was closed. This bummed me out a little since Carolyn, the successful playwright whose house we were staying in, mentioned the great nooks in the library in which to write. In classic New England fashion, we found a volunteer on the sidewalk filling the donation-only book trough with gently-used books. I purchased the ancient Celtic text, The Mabinogion, and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos for three bucks and spent most afternoons reading. We slept in. We cooked veggie burgers on July 4th and drank Fat Tire. We went to breakfast the last day we were there and took a trail through the woods, wandering off path and ended up, seven miles later, at the magical Butterfly Gardens.
Clearly, this wasn’t a time to “do work.” And whether I want to admit it or not, writing is work. Because I enjoy it, I don’t always see it as work but it is. The trick, in this life, is to love the work you do and on occasion, be okay with wanting to haul off and smack her, hard, on her pony-behind. She’s patient, afterall. She’ll circle around the room and nudge you. She’ll whinny and whine and scratch the dark earth until you heave yourself back up there, in the saddle, packing the heat of not inspiration but dedication. If you write, you are a devotee to your madness. Does that sound harsh? If you write, you cannot be afraid of madness. If you write, you know the word, ‘madness,’ may not be quite harsh enough. I needed a vacation, not a goal, even if that goal involved my first love—writing.
If you write, make sure you bring the right tools, the right weapons that the occasion calls for. Dispense with the guilt gremlins if you skip a day or a week of writing. Trust that something else is cooking inside of you, inside of your life-lab that also requires the attention you give your work, your writing. We cannot attempt to characterize life if we ourselves cut ourselves off from our own life-pageant.