He asks me, “What are you writing?”
Should-be-simple question. Nevertheless. WritING and What suggest a singular focus towards an identified goal, and if only.
Of the half dozen projects begun in the past dozen years, I am WritING exactly zero Whats. To complete that sentence: half dozen projects begun and abandoned because (– excuses dolled up as reasons –) keep damming the river.
The biggest boulders of debris may look like procrastination, may feel like avoidance, may clang like doubt
May choke like syrup even as it caulks the leaks where the hunger seeps through
Without (– excuses dolled up as reasons –) in the way, the What is the paper for publication that may never see submission even though it could nudge our flawed work one millimeter closer to just
The What is one book of essays that may never gather into coherence even though it could script one calm exchange during a break in the volley of fire
The What is a collection of pieces about cooking and grandmothers, a topic tried out and tired out by at least a thousand before, yet this one thousand and first may never knead itself into folds of story even though it could be what any daughter shares with any mother while they both still warm to sentiment
“What are you writING?” He and the question sharing a near-total lack of guile. Nevertheless, the sting. The swelling closed.
I respond here in the safe, dry riverbed of anonymity instead of responding to him. Here, instead of turning towards the much more familiar voice that asks the same question in all the spaces between, which is also the voice of this half-a(ss)nswer.
I write. This doesn’t rise to the rank of writING yet it is an act, which beats the opposite. My pen sketches its surreptitious snapshots from bus routes and staff meetings. My dog-eared journal is fat with indulgent self-pity and bullying attempts to (again) set right the perpetually dislocating heart. Webpages, note cards, instructional guides for students who themselves are drowning in text, even office emails towards which one person may turn one eye to read one line. These are the closest to any Whats I write.
I try to stay awake as I fumble around in the medium of words. Even if I am bent over the most tedious task with no clear reward, I attempt to tune myself to the craft, weaving slippery beads onto their barbed threads of sentences. Maybe it’s to tease out knots, maybe to fortify, or to emphasize, or to bind.
Maybe it’s to practice.
Or to play.
In any event, I adhere to Natalie Goldberg’s first rule of writing: “Keep the hand moving” (… and the writing will win). This is the way to stay limber when-not-if (– excuses dolled up as reasons –) no longer hold sway or at least the What becomes hungry enough to scare loose from those smug, fat boulders a fragment or two and if not mow them down at least give them a run for their money.
And the seams begin to split. And the dam begins to break.
Or so I
Which is what each of us must do, after all.
If we are to keep on.
Image: Su Blackwell, “The Girl in the Wood”