Riding home from the café this morning, I experienced a powerful sense of temporal displacement. The temperature, the color of the sky, the damp scent of flowers, the particular slant of the wind, the shade and shapes of the pavement transported me emotionally to Provo, Utah, 1982, riding my bike down the street away from the mountains homeward as the weight of an impending storm pressed from all sides. Swallowing to equalize the pressure in my ears, I watch eddies of leaves intermittently swirl up and then scatter haphazardly back to the ground. I feel a low, diffuse sense of anxiety–an urgency that has been cut with disappointment so often that it no longer tastes of immediacy, but still has that bile-bitter edge of expectancy. The future has been stripped of detail. The projections that adults weave like tendrils into otherwise unmapped time have suddenly withdrawn as if in flinching recoil from an unexpectedly repulsive sensation. All that is left are vague impressions of possibility; there are no appointments, no plans, no rituals, no assurances. What awaits is formless, raw. And there is a crackling excitement in that. No dread of inevitability. No deep-grooved tedium of habit. Just novelty and a long absent sense of infinite malleability humming as current through my nervous system. A sense of freedom sweeps over me, but it's a freedom so overwhelming it is frightening, almost unbearable, incongruously oppressive.
And then in an instant it's all gone: I'm back to the present, my calcifying future restored, the jaded pall of dull predictability draped again over the piled corpses of once overoptimistic ambitions, a quiet trembling in my chest, a tightness in my throat. I suck in a deep breath, slowly let it out, and then all this too passes, settling me back into an uncalibrated equilibrium, coasting down the street and through an intersection, balanced with familiar ease on a measured uncertainty.
Yesterday, what began as an innocuous search through my email for a trivial bit of information left me mired in the wreckage of unfinished missives. Hundreds of unsent messages lay bitrotting in my out box, many of them years old, and this search brought them to my attention. As I started to read through some of these fragments of abandoned prose, I initially felt the thrill of a voyeur—the familiar novelty of a not entirely unexpected discovery providing a sort of vicarious pleasure. But continuing on, that pleasure curdled. Here were so many promising threads left to wither, so many budding relationships suffocated by my self-absorbed silence. And these orphans are not outliers; they are representative of a deeply-ingrained, chronic pattern of abandonment, representative of my character.
This tone tastes disappointingly of regret, a flavor quite bitter to me. But spitting it out does nothing to sweeten the aftertaste. "To live in such a way as to have no regrets," has long been my overarching goal; and what success I've had in this has never depended upon my refusal to acknowledge regrettable behavior, but rather my mindful preemption of it. Even so, cowardice, laziness, lassitude, and indifference govern far too much of my activity.
Much of my dissatisfaction results from my habitual inability to promptly answer the question, "What is important to me?" I have not sufficiently developed the skill of improvising integrity, of spontaneously mapping the diverse abundance of choices immediately available to me at any given moment to the carefully aggregated choices I have already made through thoughtful deliberation. And yet so often it is unmistakable to me even as I act (or fail to act) on something that the choice I have made to do so is not "right." But this awareness rarely provides an effective dissuasion. This skill I seek of quickly and reliably acting in accord with my principles is surely developed not by detached contemplation, but by regular practice; by taking risks, by making mistakes, by my active involvement choosing—by doing.
I sat down with hundreds of eager thoughts, but the empty page nearly brought me to tears. Alas, it took a full sentence to pull that trick. Writing and crying. This is home, is it not?
Am I a writer?
What a terribly frightening question. I think I think like a writer. But I have not exhibited the patience of a writer. Nor the discipline. Nor the words. That doesn't make for much of a writer now, does it? I haven't cracked a dictionary in months, digital or otherwise. And, no, it's not because every word I desire comes to mind effortlessly. Funny how a neat, orderly collection of words has come to represent to me what writing is all about, and yet what writing is really all about winds up making a complete mess of that tidiness. Let you in on a secret: I just used a dictionary to find a synonym for "order" as a better last word in that sentence. Another secret: I didn't really just use a dictionary; I wrote that sentence knowing that I would eventually do what I said therein. Still another secret: none of these sentences have survived with their original phrasing intact.
I'm just full of secrets this morning, aren't I? But isn't anything I haven't written a secret? A secret hidden in silence or forgotten memory? On the other hand, are my long-neglected scrawls in notebooks any less forgotten? Potentiality does not invest a thing with substance. Ouch. That stings. How often have I put off taking action because I knew that I could? What a fool! Of course I can! But canning a thing is not doing it. Doing it is doing it. And little else matters.
How does a writer stay focused? How does a good writer say the simple truths in no more words than it takes to understand them, and yet no fewer than it takes to convey them effectively. Was "effectively" one word too many there? Can I succeed in making you, dear reader, as self-conscious of my poor writing as I am? What a fool! Of course I can! But canning a thing is not doing it. See above.
The temptation to gush is now too strong. I felt like I was starting to write again right there. It felt good. It felt indulgent, even. My cockiness and arrogance started to ooze out of my fingertips in goops of molten self-indulgence. I looked over my newly minted sentences with guilty pride and thought, "Sure they need some polishing, but my don't they look fine, these words I've arranged here so cleverly." I was quite pleased with myself. Look how nicely it all flows! Look how it rewards the careful reader with its lightly-veiled wittiness and sage, worldly wisdom! Look at all of the rules and guidelines for good writers that I am following so diligently! And the humble, self-deprecating tone! Brilliant!
Then, as I start to count the exclaimation marks in what I begin to recognize as dross, I feel the crushing grip of doubt around my chest. I am an amateur. A dilettante. Not even a hack. At least a hack finishes. Insufferable. This is why I stopped pretending to write. This is why I quit. This is why I am unhappy now. Because I want to be a writer, but I don't want to work to get there. Because I am lazy. Because I am no longer able to suspend the disbelief that anyone would really want to read my drivel.
Just to read? No, not just that. To learn from. To be persuaded by. To be entertained by. To be moved by. To be motivated by. Why else does a person write? To be heard? Do I want to be heard? What do I have to say that's worth hearing? I don't even know what I've got to say that I want to hear myself. Not quite inspiring, I must admit. Am I teaching myself, persuading myself, entertaining myself, moving myself, motivating myself? Am I hearing myself?
Yes. Yes, I am hearing myself. And it's a tedious titter that I hear.
Sandy's comment a while ago that I whine when I write hurt. Because it's true. And I know that it's true. I know it quite well. Like an invalid knows his affliction. To know, the invalid doesn't need someone to scrape their dirty, unmanicured fingernails across his wounds and—after having examined the fresh blood undernail—pronounce the name of the affliction. If you know what I mean. If you don't, then I'm a bad writer. If you tell me I'm a bad writer: get your bloody fingernails out of my wound; if you don't: I appreciate your humoring me.