By the time I realized what was in front of me, it felt far too close. The camper, or trailer, looked to have its half burned away. It was likely the result of the freezes from last week. I imagined something burning in the night, the sizzle of falling snow turning to steam, with the fire department on the way. I imagined the beauty of the natural light from a film like The Revenant. Here though, taking pictures downwind, I smelled an acrid toxic smell of melted plastic. The colors likely verdant in that trailer became all gray, all charcoal. It looked foreboding on this particular sunny day. Across the street, church service was letting out. People in their Sunday clothes dancing over suburban curbs. It was 66 degrees Fahrenheit and I was getting a sunburn in February. But this, this trailer, though it had caution tape around it, showed no sign of leaving anytime soon.
What did I feel as I walked away? Nothing.
I think that was what I was most troubled about in that moment. Not the destruction splayed out in front of me, but the lack of creation inside my own mind.
Last week was painfully similar in their days. I would wake up, turn on the kettle for hot water to French press coffee, and while it percolated I would do a small workout of planking and superman exercises because I’m spending more of my time sitting down. With my coffee, I would read Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary until I drank all the coffee, or until I finished a section or chapter. After that, I would meditate, sometimes for twenty minutes and sometimes for forty. After that I was free to go along with my day, most likely spending time with my wife. It would not be surprising based on this schedule to say that the past week has been one of the best in my life. It felt rejuvenating for reminding me of the power of meditation, for getting me back into non-fiction books, for me to see the compounding, exponential advantage to working out each day when I looked at myself through a mirror. But unlike the week previous, I was not writing.
And now, it seems as though writing is harder than ever.
The walk yesterday was an attempt for me to jar some things loose. I have gone on walks before that produced some great ideas, but the more I meditated and the more I felt life to be beautiful and already apparent to me, the less I felt compelled to write about it.
And the more I realized that I had nothing to write about, the more I began to wonder if I would EVER have anything meaningful or important to say about the world. It was right at that moment that I realized I was in a writing crisis.
“I wish I could be the sort of person who could just enjoy life as it is presented to me,” I told my wife in bed just before sleep. “But it doesn’t seem like I’m built that way. I’m a Venus fly trap and I prefer the dandelion.” Which is to say that I have to reach out and grab things to keep me alive, rather than float through the air.
If we’re going to have it all out then, which we should, I am most envious of the people who spend their time actually living life. They seem to have no qualms or rhetorical argument with the position in life they have landed in, because it would take away from the time they’ve been given, drawing in sensations of sight, taste, touch. They are magnetizing for, paradoxically, making you forget you had complaints about this world at all, because they draw you into its pleasures effortlessly.
I am not this person.
Ever since a particular Thanksgiving, where as a child I went outside on the street where I lived, and paced back and forth in a rain-soaked neighborhood, despite the fact that relatives were together watching a football game, I realized that I needed time to be alone. I needed to withdraw from it. In a similar way that patterns are only recognizable by dropping back, I was adamant about needing to see patterns. Call it being shy. Call it bookish. Whatever it was, I had it, and I have it now.
So when there comes a time in my life where I feel compelled to write SOMETHING and I find that I cannot write ANYTHING, it feels like a personal, permanent, and pervasive crisis. It infects every sensation I have. I have to remind myself that, for a great majority of the human race, they entered this world, did the best they could, and then left it without any self-imposed record to speak of. Dust thou art…and the rest of it. They did not consider the realization that everything that has been said has been written, filmed, bled over, and fought over, has been done already, and that now a kind of moral exhaustion plagues the Western world, leading to a verisimilitude of remakes, blockbusters, and derivative bullshit.
I’m 31 years old, I tell myself. There is plenty of time to make something of my writing. With plenty of time to become “established”. Yesterday I hoped to unpack that word: established in the sense that I was recognized as a published author, acknowledged by someone in the publishing world as an author to watch. It was truly pathetic for me to take out a spiral notebook and a pen and then, solemnly, put them back. My wife can tell when I have a writing crisis when the pen and paper come out. Perhaps with handwriting instead of typing I can say it differently? Meanwhile the blank page remains. Nothing gets done.
This kind of attitude about the greater world of writing, and its acknowledgement, to me is one of the most toxic. At any point in the history of writing, there were those popular authors who are easily forgotten, and there are the artists who plodded away, only to be recognized half a century later. Last night I re-read some Melville, for example, so that I could be inspired. But for the vast majority of us, our writing is communicating something so contextual, it exists for us and can hardly leave our generation. And when we are dead, what do we care about our legacy? If we have learned anything about this agglomeration of culture and art and entertainment in the age of information, it is how its artistic integrity has been reduced to bits and bytes. We hardly have time to appreciate the ambiguity when we have a book report due by midnight. So we go to Wikipedia. The weight of the history of art seems to be a burden rather than a great pleasure.
I have taken to other irrational excuses as well. Can meditating too much hurt my writing? Total nonsense: Yuval Noah Harrari has made his entire career on the foundation of his practice. Perhaps it is freewriting that is the problem? I’ve gone back and forth on starting with an idea, or starting with the fingers on the keyboard, and both seem reciprocal to the other. Eventually the thought arises. Perhaps it is diet and exposure? Hence a blueberry smoothie and a walk to a burned down trailer. It is not as if these asides are based on reason or logic. Rather, it is the sign of someone unwilling to acknowledge that there is a time for all things. I expect beautiful words to just leap out from my essence every chance I get to sit down.
I am writing out this writing crisis only to say that you are not alone. Usually these problems take care of themselves by sitting down and doing the work. Professionals, I have heard, are the ones that do the time despite wanting nothing more than to avoid it. The ones who remain are the ones who sit down and do the work in rain, sleet, or snow. Sometimes I hate writing. Most often it is in a time like right now, when I feel as though my writing has so little to say as to not be worth the weight it engenders, much like a house on stilts when there happens to be a little demon with a sledgehammer underneath. When you’re in a crisis though, it does not feel good. Even when I know that this too shall pass, it still feels as if I have not read enough and written enough by the age of 31, and that most of what I have left in life is a shitty reminder that I come from a place and time that belittled education and that, had I the proper literacy education, it would not have happened this way….
It’s all excuses, the lot of it. I should remind myself that excellent writers can exist in every class, and are usually self-taught anyway. Thought, thankfully, requires no inheritance. We are all given it, in whatever way. Even the intellectually disabled students I taught in special education a decade ago had their blissful moments. They are only viewed as rare because so few people are willing to pay attention. Putting experiences down in representations is a toolset we pick up through writing, film, the visual or performative arts. I call myself am artist only in the sense that I am practicing an art I have chosen. There’s nothing more or less to say I suppose. When we relegate ourselves to someone else’s opinion of us, of course we open ourselves to paralysis. It should not start with opinions from others; it should start from the pleasure of finding things out. When I think about the wonder of the world, the goal should be in the sharing of it, no matter how small. Birds are flying in our backyard, a kind with black and white feathers in syncopated lines, and they have small red dots on the backs of their heads. They participate in a mating dance, and they got so involved in the chase from the male to the female that the female darted left too fast and the male flew smack into our cleanest window. Now the window is not so clean anymore, but he managed to redirect himself after this ultimate embarrassment.
Is writing any more than that? Spring is coming, the metaphor of mating season and the hope that the pandemic will end and that we will be back to our little pleasurable ways: this is the atmosphere we write in. All writing is a small conversation between people, and the goal of writing is to make it create the most pleasurable and engaging images in one’s head as is possible under Wittgenstein’s approval. A writing crisis makes us forget that fact. But I think, through writing, I reminded myself of it.