On a Delicate Balance
I have not been writing. There, I’ve said it. I have been traveling the country talking about Still Writing, but I have not been writing. Because writing a book and promoting a book are two entirely different things. Because my new book needs me. It’s a baby I’ve given birth to, and abandoning it to make its own way in this noisy world would be akin to leaving an infant on the changing table, tiny legs flailing in the air. I am devoting my time and energy to traveling, teaching, speaking and reading. And please don’t get me wrong: I love meeting my readers. I love teaching retreats like these. I’m just back from AWP in Seattle where I spent time with the most warm and receptive people, generous people. One reader handed me a gift –– no card, no name, no nothing –– just a beautiful soap dish and bar of fragrant soap, to thank me for my books. I could have wept. It is meaningful beyond measure to see my words find their mark. To know that these decades of work are cumulative, that I am mining veins that are like tributaries, finding their way to others.
But I’m not writing. And when I’m not writing, I’m not well. The world is leached of color. My brain is fuzzy. My heart, overfull, hurting. Sentences wind around and around me –– unwritten –– and form a sticky, uncomfortable web. These unwritten sentences don’t wait. They are alive, and like any living thing, untended, they wither and decay. They calcify, then turn to dust. They will not appear again –– not in this precise way. Each day that I don’t capture them, they are gone forever.
As I write these words, I am on my chaise for a few days reprieve between trips. This weekend I will be in Palm Beach. Next weekend, Fort Lauderdale, with Brooklyn in between. Then New Orleans. Then Italy. Then San Francisco. Then LA. Please understand that I am not complaining. I am blessed, enormously fortunate to have these opportunities. I will meet my readers, see old friends, forge new relationships, have new experiences. This is a great gift. But there are only two modes for a writer. We are either in the cave, where we do our work in the darkness, or we are out of the cave, blinking like night creatures exposed to the light of day. Certainly there are writers who stay in the cave, who don’t promote their books, perhaps those who simply can’t, because of their own temperaments, or those who have reached a point at which they don’t need to. And there are other writers who abandon the cave entirely, and spend all their time spinning, spinning, moving around the world, going from event to event talking about work they wrote years, sometimes decades, ago. But for those of us –– myself among them –– who move out of our dark and solitary natural habitats and into the fast-paced, populated, bright and beautiful world, and back again, we need always to remember who we are beneath it all.
Writing is how I come to know myself. The blank page is my mirror, my teacher, my salvation. When I return to it –– and I can feel that time coming –– it will be at a point when I have nurtured STILL WRITING along so that it has found its way. I will take a deep breath and grab hold of the first words of a sentence as if it is a lifeline. Because it is, in fact, a lifeline. For me, for all of us. I will recede into the darkness, hoping to emerge one day with whatever new treasures I find there.