It was a simple question posed to me last week, though unexpected, as it came in response to a message of condolence I wrote to a friend who’d just had a big loss:
How goes the writing?
It’s always the short questions that do it, you know? Four words, sharp enough to pierce through clouds of confusion and frustration; four words that required a certain honesty with myself; four words that were no doubt genuinely meant, because this guy doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean. If I could respond to them today, I would write the following: “Terrible. It’s gone. I thought I had a book or at least a blog, but I’ve been trying for a year to get it out and one thing after another has happened, and each thing has made it harder and harder. And I don’t know what to do, because my words used to flow so easily, and that process gave me so much satisfaction, and so much comfort. And now it’s gone, and I’m wondering what happened to that. And I’m actually grieving the loss of my voice.”
Instead, I wrote about one of those things that happened, one thing that still troubles me, but I concluded with a junkyard dog determination to stick it out and get it right. But as the days passed after I wrote my response and the dominoes of my personal life fell all around me, I realized the answer to “how goes the writing” is so much more complicated, and yet so much more simple than the answer I gave to him. The answer I gave to him was really the answer I was trying to give to myself.
If there is one thing I know, it’s that we often can’t learn until we’ve surrendered, and we often can’t surrender until we are at our wit’s end – rock bottom, scraping the barrel, at the end of the line, insert cliché here, but what I really mean is that we are lying prone on the ground, slapped down by our own failures and pain, and we can muster up just enough energy to crack open our dry mouth and croak “Uncle.”
And fortunately, I’ve arrived at Uncle, at long last.
When I was writing the ill-fated Friendly Fire, I got a lot of positive feedback. “World class,” someone important wrote. “I’ll read anything you write, Jen,” another wrote. My sister said it made her cry – not, I’m glad to report, because it was so bad. Each compliment propelled me forward a little, gave me just enough confidence to tackle the next post. But the truth is that I found it excruciatingly hard to extract every word from myself during the life of that blog. My brain – or my heart, perhaps – didn’t want to let the words go, but it wouldn’t really tell me why. I’m still unspooling the reasons for that, but it hasn’t gotten any easier. And I’ve tried again – in another blog, in another place, and it’s not coming out any easier than it did before. I’ve said before that this is the story I need to get out before I can do anything else. And that really sucked, because that story wasn’t coming out, no matter how I tried to write it or in what format.
Finally, I have to admit it: I just don’t want to write about it — at least not right now. I’ve felt obligated to, in a way, because I know there are people out there who are like I used to be, hunting for some words, hunting for someone who understands what has just split their world in two. People who know, as I wrote once, “how it feels to have your life intact at one moment, only to proceed to the next moment and find it lying in tiny pieces on the floor, while you gawk at the wreckage with a fork sticking out of your heart.” And I feel like I can help them, I can tell them from experience, “hey, this is temporary. This won’t be the end of you, and it might well be the beginning of you.” And beyond that, it appeared to be a good subject to write about, because it has widespread and possibly even commercial relevance.
But I can’t, and I suspect it’s at least partly because of where I am now. I am 3 ½ years out from the start of all that, and I just don’t connect well with that time in my life anymore. It’s a cruel irony, isn’t it? I couldn’t have written it while I was going through it, because I didn’t know at the time whether I would survive/thrive/kick divorce’s ass all over the place. And then, once I did, I couldn’t write it anymore because well, the immediacy of it is just gone. And so the story that had to come out before anything else could ended up being a cork in the bottle, and it’s long past time to remove it.
I still feel the lessons of that time very strongly, and I imagine that they would weave into anything I might write. That would be natural. But writing about the events? It feels like trying to put on a shirt that’s two sizes small – awkward, ill-fitting, and constricting. I’ve made my peace with those events, to be sure. But they just don’t resonate with me anymore. These days, I could much more easily write about the challenges of post-divorce relationships, family blending, or parenting a post-divorce child. Those events have immediate relevance, and they are all-consuming.
It’s hard to admit defeat, or what you think is defeat. The other day I told someone close to me that he sticks with something that isn’t working for too long, because he’s afraid that admitting it isn’t working means failure. Snort. Doctor, heal thyself.
Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most important books of all time, wrote about something called hyperintention, which is exactly what it sounds like – the cycle of our dogged pursuit of something elusive and the inevitable, resulting disappointment. Hyperintention may not be toxic to everything, but it’s toxic to my creativity. That may account for the fact that I can’t even seem to warm to my camera these days. Hyperintention is apparently a broad-spectrum killer
Last night, in the midst of the falling dominoes I mentioned above, so much of this came tumbling out; how I’m feeling crushed by expectation from all angles right now, and how badly I wish I could just take to the road for awhile, and let life come to me. That isn’t possible right now, but it might be possible in four or five weeks. And in any event, life is here right now, and will come to me if I ask for it. The answer to hyperintention, of course, is to focus on the process and not the result. The answer is universal, and yet it’s an answer I still have trouble with: Let go. Follow the moving water and let yourself be led by it. Stop paddling, stop fighting. You’ll just wear yourself out. Quiet yourself and stop drowning out what life is trying to tell you.
The river knows
When to slow down
When to speed up
When to go around
It never fights with life
It just takes a bend.
– David Walburn, Watching the River Roll
I’ll learn that eventually.
And so begins a time when I simply let life come to me. I have no idea whether my writing and my photography will come back, but it’s not my job right now to care. It’s my job right now to be open to some things – to myself, to other voices, to what life is asking of me – and closed to others, like the crush of expectation or intention.