Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chronic Writing

I remember his name. I remember his words--"I will always be writing something. I can't live without writing."  I remember that he laughed at me once when I said I had completed a full workout in less than an hour. 

I was a grad student in English, as was he. He worked as some kind of sports booking agent, or maybe a comedy booking agent; I think he was a fiction writer, though he may have been a poet. My memory of him may be clouded by the fact that I harbored a crush--such blue eyes, such curly hair, such nice legs.  He told me once that hockey was beautiful, a kind of poem in motion, all flow and movement.

Now, many years later, I never think about his eyes or his finely muscled thighs. I only recall that I recoiled slightly when he said that about writing.  I was young then (comparatively).   I had already had several individual poems published; I thought of myself as a writer. But no one had ever told me that writing was lifeblood.

It wasn't,  for me. I enjoyed it, the challenge, the concentration of locating the right word or phrase, the success that came sometimes, and the praise from readers and teachers. Always the praise.  As early as 5th grade, a teacher had said I was a good writer, so I continued to write.

But, need to write?  Couldn't survive without writing?  Not me. I had 3 young children, a marriage that was raveling fast, a goal to finish an MA in English, a love of the written word that kept me up late into the night, reading on my side of the bed, hiding the small light with the book's cover.

Now I realize he was only repeating one of the mantras of "serious" writers.  Must do it.  Can't stop.  Defines me. Sustains me. Is me.  I have no idea whether he realized that's what he was doing. For all I know, he believed himself wholly.

From the time I was eleven, I thought of myself as a poet. I do love to write poems--well, love to finish poems. However, in the grand scheme of things, I have to place writing in its proper place. I can imagine--have lived--many days that had no room for creating.  I have wiped flour with damp paper towels from an old kitchen floor until it made paste, then thrown buckets of water on it to dilute the paste into something that could be mopped up.  I have held a feverish child on my lap, rocking, one hand on his hot forehead while he breathed into my shoulder,  mumbled in his sleep, sat up occasionally to vomit.  I have sat at my sister's bedside while she recovered from yet another surgery, spoken in low voices to my mother or sister about her recovery--would she ever recover? Would she always be at the mercy of this illness?

On days like that--and they are many--it never occurs to me to write a poem.  I can't find it in myself to place my pain, or my family's pain, or my exhaustion, in any larger context. I can't make metaphor or image out of it. I am simply trying to survive the experience, even when I am not the one in pain. Perhaps even especially then.

Once, at a fairly prestigious writing conference, I heard a famous poet say she had written 350 poems in the last year. In a notebook, which she carried with her. All hand written. I felt a palpable intake of breath--admiration from the eager audience.  Many there longed to be her, to exhibit her commitment and fortitude.  I longed to go outside and breathe the mountain air, since it suddenly felt stuffy in the room.

Though I sometimes hate to admit it to myself, I could stop writing--COULD, I said, not will, not WANT TO. I don't want to admit it because then I have to admit the possibility that I am not a "real" writer.  Because of some generally accepted vision of writers as driven and tormented.  Because of some guilty sense that if I were more "serious" and "real" about it, I would have already forced  2 books of poetry into existence.

What can I say in my own defense?  I was raised to be practical above all.  Bedrooms not dusted? Then you don't go outside to play.  Clarinet not practiced? Then you don't get to write down any time on the  practice sheet, and you certainly don't get to feel the sheer pleasure of learning how to read and make music.  Dishes not done?  Someone will have to do them later; it might as well be you.  Bills not paid?  Pay them.

Do the work that's in front of you, that's my mantra, chosen or not.  My Irish grandmother's image sometimes rises; I don't think she wanted to be canning tomatoes and meat in her eighties. I don't think she wanted to be raising grandchildren, worrying about breakfast and buses and after-school snacks and bedtime stories.  But, somehow, her children's children needed her help. So, she rose each day to help.  It became her reason for rising, just as satisfying her long-unattended desires would have become, had she had a different life.

I sometimes put off writing for other, more measureable tasks.  Unloading dishwasher. Check. Folding laundry. Check. Walking dog.  Check. Getting dinner in the oven.  Check. Preparing for my full load of classes.  Checking items off a mental list carries a certain lovely weight.

I recently--tonight, I admit--looked up the definition for "chronic."  Here's what I found:
long-lasting and recurrent, or characterized by long-suffering. By that definition, whether I write every day or on a schedule, or whether I publish a book every 5 years, I am still a chronic writer.

I embrace this condition.  My attempts at writing have been long-lasting (it's been 20 good years), and they have been recurrent.    I have suffered both for writing--weeping as I write about my dead brother or my children--and for not writing.  I win the suffering category, no question.

Perhaps I have a chronic condition after all.  But who needs a chronic condition?  I don't.  Yet, I meet it if it wants to meet me.  I am sitting here now, composing.

Chronic calls up images of death or some kind of necessity. So be it.  I will write--Lord willing, as my sinewy Granny used to say--until I die.  I can't say I would die without writing--I may die with it. But I will say that when I have finished my other work, I'll be here, trying to make a certain sense of things.