A strange thing, my writing life. There is little that is constant. One day I’m passionate and ready and charged with the knowledge that all I must do is the daily work, spend time at the desk, and I will inevitably find my way into those creative spaces that E.M. Forster talked about, the places where I will access things normally beyond my reach. They seem that close on some days, those spaces. I’ve accepted that I’m a slow learner with writing (for instance, I just had a conversation with Bradford Morrow–a very nice, perceptive, warm man–and he’s published seven novels and several collections of short fiction and he isn’t that much older than me, a sprinter’s pace that cannot help me but to see my own speed as more of an “amble” ) and that I’ve taken a long time to learn simple lessons about my work on the page, but on some days, the next big phase forms just beyond a thin layer of fog, just around the next turn.
But on other days, not only is the fog too thick, but the road is all busted up and blocked by wind-blown trees and mudslides and angry mobs waving torches and pitchforks. On those days, I have no clue what I’m doing with writing. Tonight, for instance, I was jotting down some ideas in my notebook and I wrote, “I should just go out and burn these little books and be done with it. A big bonfire that I can toss all these papers and notes and journals into one at a time to erase it all and get on with living without all the hassle.” Sure, it’s partly a case of not being satisfied with daily progress–any act of writing only happens in increments–but it’s also the lingering thought that I’m simply too old to begin the writing life I’ve imagined.
No advice needed on this front. It’s all cyclical thought and comes and goes according to some whim of its own. I’ve told myself many times that the writing life I’ve imagined is not the one I have. I only have the writing life I have. I’m only the writer I am. I understand this on an intellectual level. But the part of me that seeks to create? That part isn’t intellectual. It’s off to the side of the intellect and I can’t really tell it what to do, or how to think about the work I am/am not doing. Tonight, I imagined burning all of my work. Tomorrow, after I go to school and do some writing exercises with my students, I might feel differently. I’m not even sure publishing has much to do with these thoughts. Last week, a nice little journal called Eclipse bought a story of mine called “Revival.” I’ve wanted to place this story for a long time. I’ve always liked it and could never figure out why no review wanted it–it’s been rejected nearly twenty times. You’d think that getting the acceptance would buoy my writing spirits, but the opposite happened (and please, Eclipse folk, if you see this, it has nothing to do with you! I’m honored to be in your review). I was very happy for a short period of time and then the thought entered: What if that story is the last good thing you’ll ever write? Even though it was a ridiculous thing to think (I’ve written stories since “Revival” that I like even more than that story), I could not shake it. I wanted to burn all my writing that night too.
I don’t have the answers. I doubt any writer really does. Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest writers in English, ever, had his wife lock him in his writing room and not let him out until he was done writing. He’d pound on the door and claim that he was a fraud. This from the guy who wrote Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. This after he’d already been acknowledged as a master. I’m sure other writers have similar stories. I’m just another writer trying to figure it out.
Immediately, I’m concerned whether or not I should be talking about my writing in the context of Joseph Conrad’s writing. Sort of conceited, right? Should I compare my reams of unpublished stuff with his timeless, complex novels? Probably not. But I bet if we had a fire and were both tossing our books and papers into the flames, it’d be hard to see which were burning brighter.