Tuesday, March 07, 2023

When I like to write

I like to write in the morning after a fractured night’s sleep has left me feeling so emotionally fragile it feels like a form of grief. I’m overcome and on the verge of tears, and my brain suddenly alights on a thought, then 10 thoughts, then 100. The words quickly filling my mind need a space to live. Feelings I left festering under the surface emerge and demand to be heard. I’m running on adrenaline, and at my wit’s end, and too tired to be careful. What makes me ache, what tortures me, what I truly think comes pouring out. I confess that I feel as though I am in mourning at fall’s first warnings, when the sudden chill in the morning air is so jarring since until yesterday, there was nothing but heavy, humid air mugging my every breath. Or I whisper to the journal I keep in my car, “I think I’m losing my fingerprints.”

I wrote this gush of words above after beginning a graduate writing program in my early 40s. I was finally attempting to fulfill my third-grade teacher’s prediction that I would be a writer when I grew up. Trying my hand at fiction for the first time, I had the zeal of a convert. I’d deferred my writing dreams (and my vague grad school plans) for so long, I never thought I’d be someone who lived to write. Then a series of unforeseen events – motherhood in my late 30s, among other things -- lead me to the magic door. I found the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write – like an itch you keep scratching or better yet, a lover you can’t stop kissing. If I showed up to write, I would write, then write a little more. Later after I’d taken a pause, a new thought might occur to me and I would race to my laptop to record it.

In the early days of this writing frenzy, which began during my maternity leave, I convinced myself it was all tied to breastfeeding and post-pregnancy hormones. (My true religion is a combination of Catholic guilt and jinx theory.) Plus, writing felt magical, too good to be true. I feared it would all disappear once I ceased to nurse and my body went back to its old self.

When this pessimist’s fantasy lifted, I found I wanted to write fairly often; some days, every spare minute. Not that every day produced the same kind of writing or quantity. Oh no.

So while writing after a night of broken sleep unleashes in me highly emotional, highly unstructured thoughts, writing after I’ve had eight hours of solid slumber produces an excess of energy that converts my mind into a trampoline, and I find myself revising multiple pieces in one sitting, organizing notes for a future piece and gathering details on, say, a fellowship for writers. I’m full of wonder and confidence; I have something to prove and I want to fight – on the page.

(Note to young writers: Sleep is cool if it allows you to go wild in your writing).

Philip Lopate says journal-keeping invites thought. I use my journal musings as a gauge for the topics that interest me, and some of my entries slide right into essays I wind up publishing. Most of them do not! But the practice primes my writing mind to collect details. Writing as regularly as I do, I’ve found paying attention to the odd juxtapositions of everyday life pays dividends. One night, I wrote in my journal about soaping up my infant in the bathtub while softly singing the words to Neil Young’s song, “Only Love Will Break Your Heart.”

In other words, as William Stafford once advised, I welcome any thought that comes; I write down all kinds of little snippets because by doing so, I train my mind to keep supplying these oddities. In another moment, I recorded this command: “Map my brain.” It’s a call for a decoder ring of sorts, or simply my secret instructions to an artist I have yet to find, one who can draw the ideas that paper the walls of my mind. Someone who can decipher the mosaic of thoughts, from the moment as a toddler that I poured the bottle of Prell shampoo on the floor upstairs, and my father swooped down to administer my punishment, to certain lines from “It’s a Wonderful Life” (“How would you like living in the nicest house in town?”), and the insistent rhythm of that French song about an endless journey, whose melody cannot be evicted from my brain.

Jotting down these small moments has been my way of realizing I want to write memoir, above all else.

I’m thrilled to reflect on when I like to write because for so long, I didn’t write. I like to write because I’m haunted by the years when I wasn’t writing. The years of idling, when I didn’t know how to begin – or that I had to begin writing, if I wanted to live right.

I’ve found I especially like to write in the stillness of the early morning on my laptop computer. When we lived in Atlanta, it sat on an unremarkable, unpainted bookshelf that had witnessed 1,000 remarkable writing moments. With darkness still hovering over westward-leaning Atlanta long after 7 a.m., I would light one small table lamp, and open my computer files to see where I wanted to go. I was all alone, and the silence was so thick, it was as if the house itself had nodded off.

This way of writing first thing in the morning is still ideal for me. But I also like to write when I’m in the car, and a twister of passing buildings, pedestrians, road signs, music on the radio, an airplane overhead and the sounds of my toddler floating up from the backseat supply me with new connections, new thoughts. Those entries tend to gush with emotion because if I’ve bothered to record a thought in the car diary, it’s an urgent one, often scrawled while the car is moving, and the handwriting attests to it. It’s a place to write down lines for stories I may never finish, like, “’I wouldn’t kill him yet,’” I say as I meet my mother at the front door.”

I like to write after an exercise workout has jarred loose some thoughts that had been hidden deep within my mind. New solutions announce themselves, sometimes to problems I hadn’t known existed. A new organization emerges for ideas that had been floating around uncategorized up to that point. Under an endorphin haze, I wrote one day about the sounds of Coltrane mixing like an overlay in my head with verses from Dr. Seuss’s “One Fish Two Fish.”

I write about the words my son has learned, and his pithy comments, like, “Your tongue is a slide for your food.” I record little scraps of remembered conversation, like when he asked, “I good, Mommy? I good?”

Some days I don’t write … but I do have 1,043 files in my Dropbox. Journals (labeled by date), short stories (many dormant), notes for a novel, chapters of a memoir I’ve abandoned, to-do lists, poems, freelance story ideas, and so on etc. Too much? Maybe, but better than the years of idling.

But there is no idle moment now, not when I can write.

Standing at the bookshelf I used for a desk in Atlanta, I would look back every now and again at the double-doors that led to the deck, and gaze through the transom windows. All I saw was trees. All I saw: the words in my head, the ones I want to move to the screen. All I saw: the pink morning sky framed by those tiny transom windows. 

"If I try to photograph it, it’s gone.

"If I open the blinds on the doors beneath the slits of transom windows, it’s diluted.

"If I wait too long to enjoy it, it’s dissipated.

"I just have now, this moment.

"Keep writing and turning around and writing. Over your shoulder the pink sky is there. It’s there. Now it’s gone."


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