On the Page as Your Mirror
As I write this, I’m somewhere in the sky between New York and Seattle. My lukewarm cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is on my tray table, precariously close to my keyboard. Behind me, a baby cries. On the other side of the thankfully-empty middle seat, an older woman organizes papers and tear sheets from magazines. I’ve grown not to mind this time out of time that air travel necessitates. So far, on this flight, I’ve listened to a great podcast, have read a couple of embarrassingly junky magazines, and have been working on a manuscript for a friend.
But what I’m feeling, beneath the busyness and accoutrements of travel, is a kind of full and tender sense of what this is –– this life we all share. I lately have been feeling more alive than I have in a long time. I am moved to tears again and again –– not tears of sadness, but rather, a soft, profound awareness of what it is to be human. As I walked through JFK this morning, it was with this sense. Sometimes, in airports, I practice Metta, silently wishing passersby safety, happiness, strength, ease. And when I do, it instantly brings me into a relationship with these perfect strangers, these fellow travelers. But this morning’s awareness was different. It required no words, no formal practice. It just was.
There is only one explanation, really, for this tenderness I’ve been experiencing.
I have been writing.
After a long, painful, fallow period of fretting, pacing, and false starts, I have entered something that has me in its grip, that I think about when I wake up in the morning, and dream of at night. It wasn’t what I wanted to be writing. I wanted a new novel, and that’s not what I got. It wasn’t a plan. I had a plan to write an essay, a few months ago, while at a residency in Florida. I wrote the essay and then was horrified to realize that the essay wanted to be longer — it wanted, in fact, to be my next book. But despite my horror, I knew that there was a rightness to my realization, precisely because it wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t attempting to control my writing life. I wasn’t writing for a marketplace. I wasn’t thinking about the glory of it all – because there is no glory. There is no control. And nothing could be worse for the work itself than imagining a marketplace.
No. Lately it has been only me and the work. Me and the words, one lining up behind the next, the words, having been trapped in a place within me for so long that the experience of getting them on the page has come with its own, almost-unbearable, physical energy. At times I leap up from my chaise — the feeling uncontainable. Louise Gluck, in a recent interview, said that the reason she writes in bed is that, if she thinks she may possibly write something, she becomes so filled with despair that she can hardly bear it. I know this despair and it’s always a good thing – though not a comfortable one. When I feel it now, it is a wave I know I need to ride, and not run away from, no matter how I may wish to.
Everything I know about life, I know from the page. Everything I know about myself — about love, maturity, grief, joy, loss, redeption — I have learned by sitting alone in a room (or on a plane) sorting it out. What belongs to what? Why does this sentence next to that one seem to build something that feels like music? What am I really trying to say? What am I getting at? I rarely know until I write it. The words become clay that I mold and mold. Without the daily habit, the daily discipline of concentrating everything inside me on that single point of focus, the world flattens. I know this. And yet these years between books are not anything I can prevent from happening. All I can do — all any of us can do — is take care of my instrument – which is to say, stay healthy and protect my inner life – and wait patiently for that blessed sense of rightness to once again appear.