On a recent visit with my parents, as I was sitting in the guest bed with coffee and my laptop, working on a blog post, I glanced over at the dresser at a familiar photo (my parents’ house is full of photos, in equal proportions, of me and sainted dogs). I remember exactly what I was doing in that picture. It was fall, my last semester as an undergraduate, and I’d come home for a visit. I was taking a course on the literary essay, and had to write a piece for the coming week. I took my paper and pens out onto the front lawn, and sat cross-legged in the bright sun—warm enough to be outside, but cool enough for a sweater and leggings (the first go-round for that look), and got to work. Which means that for a certain span of time, captured by my dad’s camera, I was absorbed in my cuticles while my mind wandered.
I don’t remember every detail of what I was thinking that day—I’m pretty confident that at least part of the time I was wondering what was going to become of me once I graduated, which wasn’t unrelated to my homework, because at that point, my hope (I didn’t have the confidence to actually be ambitious in those days) was that I’d find work as a journalist, maybe writing for a local paper as the day job, then writing longer, more clever pieces free-lance. At that point in my life, I had little thought of grad school—journalism school maybe, or one of the new programs in publishing, as credentials to make me more marketable, but academia wasn’t in the plan at all.
I’ve kept the pieces I wrote for that course, and for the college paper, and while I won’t claim brilliance, they’re really not bad—good enough for my very reasonable, though too-tentative goals at the time. My reviews were breezy, saucy but smart. Pieces on everything from recycling to pointe shoes were well-researched, well-developed, well-described. The essay I think I was writing that weekend, after the photo was taken and I got down to work, was a little more experimental, about no more exciting event than a walk across a meadow, but it contains some nicely meditative, lyrical moments. There was real potential in my writing, meaning there was enough potential. If I’d had the wherewithal, the nous—the practical sense, as well as the disposition to push and hustle—I had the skills to make it as a writer.*
But I was pretty nous-less in those days. My writing skills might have been pretty solid, but my life skills, not so much. I was easily waylaid by discouragement and doubt. And I couldn’t bear the insecurity of being un- or under-employed, relying on my family for support. The need to be self-sufficient (comfortable) trumped art. And one move in the name of self-sufficiency (comfortable) led to another, from office jobs, to grad school, to teaching, to grad school, to teaching, to a full-time job. I almost forgot that for a few short years, I thought of myself as a writer.
And now I’m still beset by doubt. I’ve spent my adult life writing, but in a professional style that’s always seemed foreign, cold, and downright inhospitable to those reading and writing in it. All those words, painfully crafted—extracted, dredged, wrung—and none of them ever made me feel like a writer. I’ve also spent my adult life reading. A lot. I can say, pretty authoritatively, that I’ve read the absolute worst possible—horrible things, some created by accident by novices, others made deliberately by people who should know better—and I’ve also read the best. Delightful, lively, perceptive, transporting fiction; generous, careful, caring non-fiction. And, what was not the case when I was sitting on the lawn in the sunshine in another phase of my life—the world is full, saturated with every kind of writing in-between. Who am I to make any claim at all to add a few useful little bits to a limitlessly vast hoard of words?
I guess the question to ask is, who are all those others who do make that claim? Some of them are truly skilled, proficient artisans—people who have long dedicated themselves to perfecting their craft, for the satisfaction of the world, and for themselves (because one has to have a certain amount of necessary egotism to make one’s voice heard). A lot of the rest are just hacks, and yet at any given moment, they give the world something it…needs? wants? enjoys? can’t resist? whatever—as vast as the hoard of words is, there seems to be room for more. It seems that in addition to craft, and ego, the main difference between those who write and those who don’t is that the latter group simply can’t be bothered. And no matter all the things that have held me back in my life, one thing that always keeps me going is that I get bothered, a lot, and can bother, pretty energetically. If I’m somewhere in between artisan and hack, then why not me too? Because, after years of writing for other purposes, other demands, if I just feel like trying to write again, even if no-one reads a single damn word of it, why not? I am, and can continue to be, bothered to do it.
What struck me the other day, when I noticed that photo—one that’s been there every time I’ve stayed in the guest room over the years—was that, despite the intervening years, and experiences, and choices, aside from the addition of a laptop, I was sitting in almost exactly the same position now as then. I may not have become all that much more daringly ambitious in the interim, and I’m not sure my nous has improved all that much either, though my posture certainly has; I’ve definitely covered a lot of personal and professional ground, and am not quite the same person I was then. And yet, there’s something in me—body, if not brain—that has never forgotten how it is to sit cross-legged, surrounded by one’s tools, spending a certain span of time contemplating one’s cuticles, letting one’s mind wander, and then settling down to the business of writing.
*writer: (n) a person who uses words to enhance the quality of life of others, or, at least, to divert them in a way that doesn’t appreciably detract from that quality of life.