Saturday, August 12, 2017

Summer Writing Day

Up at 7 a.m.: shower, coffee, kids packing up gear. Where are my water shoes? one asks. But you’re looking for that thing you wrote—the one you thought of last night, as you drifted off to sleep—but it’s an old thing. There’s surely a file, somewhere, but not on the current computer. Maybe on a flash drive? Where is that joke book I got at the little free library? I can’t find my water bottle. Everyone in the house is looking for something.

Gulp coffee, a shredded wheat biscuit. Wait, wasn’t it published somewhere, that thing you wrote? In some anthology? Root through drawers of journals and books while shouting at the kids that they 5 minutes left before their spaceship departs. Yes, here is the book, published in 2012. That means you sent someone a file at some point, right? Search through emails for the editor’s name. Yes, here’s the file, in an email from 2010. Save a copy of the file on current computer.

Are the kids ready? No, the kids aren’t ready. The kids are still eating shredded wheat and haven’t put on their sunscreen or their water shoes. Hurry, push them out the door, into the spaceship, which is really a minivan. They apply sunscreen and put on shoes as you drive “over the mountain,” as the locals say, into Avon and Canton and then Collinsville. There is really no mountain here at all—it’s a hill at best—but you’ve taken to calling it “the mountain” too because it’s the only one you’ve got. On the 10-mile drive listen to an audiobook—halfway there The Nest by Kenneth Oppel ends, and daughter puts in disc 1 of The Hobbit, which they’ve already heard because you’ve read them the entire Lord of the Rings. The kids comment that Rob Inglis has a better accent than you, can do voices better than you, and can sing better than you—but they prefer you anyway. Drop kids off at kayaking camp 5 minutes late. They’re the last ones there.

Drive to Panera to get a latte—but really to kill time until the Canton library opens. You’re outside the library doors when they’re unlocked, and you’re the first one in, moving quickly to your carrel, the one by the window, where you set up your computer. You wonder if the reference librarian wonders about you—the person who has spent exactly 2 hours and 20 minutes typing feverishly on a laptop every day for five days. You wonder if she remembers you from last summer when you did the same thing, 2 hours and 20 minutes a day X 5 days. You never set foot in this library except during kayak camp week.

You open all the files you’re working on. You read the file you found this morning only to discover that what you wrote 7 years ago isn’t what you thought it was. Only to discover that there are no shortcuts, that now you’ll simply have to write the thing you thought it was. The thing you should have written in the first place. But you can’t wish writing into the world. You have to put it down, word by word, like laying bricks. You can’t wish a brick wall into existence either.

As you work, you overhear every conversation that the reference librarian has with patrons. By the end of the week, you know about her son’s medical history, the films she’s watched recently, where to buy a good pie, the best program for learning Portuguese quickly, where to take a car that has an automatic window stuck halfway down, and the territorial robin that thinks her birdbath is its nest. You hear these conversations, but you still work.

The big thing you’re writing—whatever it is—has become shockingly long, which probably means it’s that thing that begins with a B, but you don’t normally call it that. It started out in April as an essay, but then by the time you sent it to your writing group in May it had ballooned beyond essay—nearly 25,000 words!—to become some kind of monstrous essayvella. Your writing group said things you didn’t really want to hear—that there were too many things going on, that it was more than one essay, that it could be fractured apart into 3 or 7 or 10 essays, or that maybe there was a way to bring it all together but it needed organization and more about x, y, z—and then you resisted this advice for two days but finally capitulated because they were right and you decided you were writing some kind of triptych—a thing with three parts—but now it’s broken itself into four, and it still isn’t finished.

Actually, it began the day after Trump was elected, when you started a new file that was full of pasted bits of things you found online with your own added incoherence. But the thing isn’t about Trump at all—his name is never even mentioned once—so how can that be the beginning?

Actually, it started 6 years ago when you wrote in the notebook you were carrying around with you back then: write an essay about dolls. And the thing you’re writing is about dolls—or it was—only it’s not anymore, not really, and your writing group told you so at the last meeting when you gave them 32,000 mostly new words, so how can that be the beginning?

Actually, it began in childhood when you tried to write a novel about a crazy doll collector named Mrs. Buckett and when you began to document the events of your life for some inscrutable future, driven by a need to make notes for some unknown but necessary story TBD, TBA. Only you had no idea why you were writing, or what was important, or how it would all come together. For example, did you really need to write down that on November 3, 1984, you learned to play “Cadet Boogie” on the accordion and you got a new pen and you went to the library and you went to the New York Pizzeria and your brother ate all the pepperoni off the pizza and you took a shower and washed your hair and your bangs need to be cut? Probably not. You had no idea what you were doing, or why, so how can that be the beginning?

You still don’t know what you’re doing, or why, but in that 2 hours and 20 minutes you write the part that you thought maybe you had already written, 7 years ago, and then you pick the kids up from kayak camp, and you drive them back over the mountain. They are wet and tired and hungry, but Rob Inglis’s commanding voice speaking of Bilbo Baggins keeps them captivated. At home they’ll need to be fed, but they’re old enough to forage, so they do. You have no idea what they eat. Mostly bread? Leftovers? One of them—the one that eats cherries—is spitting pits in the backyard. The other one is slicing a pear. They are fine, so you will write a little more. There’s just a little more you want to do.

You write at a desk in the living room, because you have no study, no room of your own, so the kids move about the house around you, and you occasionally field their questions. Do you want to play Mexican Train with me? Yes, but later. Do we have any more naan bread in the downstairs freezer? Not sure, go check. Where’s that book about solar eclipses? Check the bedside table. The daughter cocoons herself in the hammock out back to read, and the son works on the custom shoe rack he’s building for his room, which means that he gets out the Deep River blue paint that he picked out at Home Depot to paint it with, which means that he covers himself in Deep River blue paint, but he is outside and happy, so you can get work done.

I think we’ve run out of frozen peas. OK, put them on the list. Can you tell if this water bottle has BPA in it? Let me take a look. Can you open this jar of yeast? Probably. Will you have time to read to us later? Wouldn’t you prefer Rob Inglis? No, we prefer you! Yes, we’ll read before bed.

You check in on your online class. The students are writing beautiful essays about blended families and trees and racism and religion and elderly parents and sex and addiction and childhood. You read a couple of their pieces, post comments. Then check your email. What are the details about a reading you’re planning this fall? You respond. Will you write a letter of recommendation for a former student applying to Ph.D. programs? You will. Check Facebook. Will you review an essay written by a non-native speaker of English? You can’t, no time. Sorry. You have a deadline: in 3 weeks, you head back to the classroom. There’s never enough time for all of it—all of the demands and requests.

You take a break to play Mexican Train, then Five Crowns with the kids. One of them is making bread, so he runs off to punch down his dough. The other says she needs to do her 30 minutes of algebra for the day. Start a load of laundry. Assign a few chores: take out the trash, clean the counter, sweep the stairs, fold the dish towels. Go back to your computer, work another half hour.

You’ve been doing this for over a dozen years now, and you’re no longer a special snowflake when it comes to getting work done. You no longer need a secluded room, perfect quiet, a cup of tea with a matching saucer, a good frame of mind. You know now that the room of your own is in your head, and the time to write is now. In the summer the room of your own is the Canton library during kayak camp and the Wethersfield library during writing camp and poolside during swim team practice and the bleachers during softball practice and Panera and the patio in the backyard and the living room and in bed at night with the laptop propped up on your knees. If you wait for the perfect time or perfect place, you will wait for years. You will wait until the house is clean and the stuff all organized, put away in tidy labeled bins, and the laundry and dishes are done and the counters are spotless. You will wait until your kids grow up and leave home. You will wait until you can stop working other jobs. You will wait until you are dead.

You finish one little bit, and then it’s time to think about dinner. What’s for dinner? Never mind, daughter has made dinner. Son has made fresh bread. Husband joins you for a family meal, another round of Mexican Train.

The evening is theirs: a walk around the neighborhood, a book before bed. Tonight, it’s The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson. Daughter knits a scarf and son sketches while you read. Before lights out, you do your nightly writing, the three of you together. You’re in your third year of writing every night with the kids. What happened today? they always ask, so you review the day for them. And then you write—just five lines—but it’s something. Will you ever need to know that you listened to The Hobbit on audiobook and your son painted his shoe rack Deep River blue and you made small baby steps of progress on the thing that you still stubbornly call an essay? Probably not. But in case you do, there’s a record.

In bed, laptop on knees, you read over the new parts of the thing. You allow yourself to peek at your current word count—74,039—so it probably really is that B-word, but you will keep deluding yourself and calling it your essay, because an essay seems containable, possible, something you could finish, something with an end, something you could conceivably write in a season. Or two. Or a year. It’s already so long, but you begin to wonder if you need even more about x, even though x was supposed to be a different thing, a new writing project altogether. Just as the writing expands to fill all corners of your life, the thing seems to be expanding to encompass everything. This thing—this non-essay, this B-word, this memoir-y thing—is starting to be about everything, because in a life everything is connected to everything else. How do you declare: this is related to that, but not that? How do you draw the lines between projects, create the demarcations between one B-word and another? How much of this thing do you keep, and how much do you take out and put away for later? This is what you will think about, as you drift toward sleep. Maybe it began four months ago, or nine, or six years ago, or thirty, and maybe you’ll never know when and where it began, but you will keep working on this thing, you will keep kneading and shaping it until you figure out what it is. You will see it through to the end. Tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or the day after that.