On Getting to Work

I’m writing this from a friend’s borrowed apartment in New York City.  Sun streams in through the east-facing windows.  The air-conditioner hums.  Outside, a bus sighs — that’s how it has always sounded to me, like a long, exhausted exhale — four floors below, on Columbus Avenue.  I have a few hours until my lunch date.  I’m showered.  Caffeinated.  Alone.  And… why is it so hard to get to work?  The world out there is noisy, but the world inside my head is even noisier.  I could blame over-stimulation from all the travel, teaching, and public speaking.  I could blame my husband or my kid.  I could blame my in box, flooding with things I need to take care of, or feel guilty for not taking care of.

Or I could blame myself.  That’s what I tend to do.  It’s what most of us usually do, isn’t it?  Out comes the whip.  We’re lazy, stuck, worthless.  Our ideas are shallow, uninteresting, tepid.  What’s our problem?  Why can’t we just crank out pages like some literary version of a well-oiled machine?

I’ll tell you why not.  Because this writing thing is hard.  It always feels good to have written, but it rarely feels good to sit down to write.  If I were to describe my own physical process, it’s like a nearly-unbearable tension within me slowly begins to rise.  A welling up of so many thoughts and feelings that it feels I might explode.  And yet, at the same time, there is the seeming impossibility of finding the words, of knowing what’s next, of getting it right.  Shoulders tense.  Jaw tightens.  Eyes sting.  Breath becomes shallow.  Mind buzzes in circles endlessly.  The page is a solid wall at which I must run, full tilt, and only by running, only by hurling myself straight at it might it crumble and give way.  But it appears so solid!  So unforgiving!  Sometime I bang against it, and limp away, bruised and bloody.  Other times, it turns out the wall was just a mirage.  But there’s only one way to find out.

So.  How to begin?  Improbably enough, we must begin with kindness.  What do we need right now?  What do you need?  Another cup of coffee?  A few moments of meditation?  A deep, cleansing breath?  A shot of courage?  A reminder that everyone who is sitting alone in her room, right at this very moment, is on some continuum of this very same process?  We are all alone.  And we are also all in this together.

On your marks.  Get set.  Go.