Every now and then I get to thinking (as many writers do, maybe?) …
Man, I dunno if I’m cut out for this.
It’s just so hard… to find the time in the day, to make the words come, to face the editing monster, to spend time thinking on all these ideas…
Life would be a lot easier if I just gave it up. Just quit worrying about writing, stop stressing about my stories, give up grinding over grammar (okay, that one was a stretch. I’m a former English teacher, grammar is in my blood.)
And that’s not Writer’s Block talking, or laziness, or any other cop out. That’s 100% true. I have a full-time job, I like getting up early in the morning to run, I like having weekends to hang with the fam, and oh yeah, there’s my whole extracurricular program at the school, too…. life would be easier if I weren’t trying to write stories too.
I entertain these thoughts.
But then I think of the stories I’m in the middle of, of leaving them unfinished. (Not even unread by an audience’s eyes, but just “unfinished by me”.) And I’m appalled. To not polish them up and get them ready to leave the nest (whether they ever do or not)? Seems like a crime against humanity … a crime against all the time and work and strife I’ve put into them.
And I think of the ideas I’ve had for stories I haven’t told yet…. stories that may come to nothing, that may never have their first word written, that may start with tons of gusto and then never go anywhere. And I can’t handle that thought either, the thought of never bringing these stories into the world, half-formed and imperfect as they no doubt would be.
In short, I can’t picture a life when I’m not writing or creating something, no matter how hard it is and no matter how much I might rather live that way.
Writing has become as natural and necessary as sustenance, as exercise.
So even though I don’t do it as much as I should, and even though my projects take forever to finish … I’m gonna keep writing.
It’s mostly garbage. It’s almost always situational. What works for one may not work for another. These things are known.
But I want to remind myself, and all of us involved in these creative endeavors, of one of my favorite aphorisms: “Inspiration exists, but it has to catch you working.”
It’s this wonderful, terrible, magic, not-magic thing. In that it feels like magic, but somehow it only seems to show its face when you’re already working. The work creates the inspiration, and then the fleeting sparks of inspiration set the work on fire.
If you’re not putting words on the page (or paint on the canvas or whatever choose-your-metaphor), then the words have nowhere to go even if your brain has one of those legendary waves. And the best way to push through a problem in your story is often to just keep writing, keep giving the characters something to do, keep flinging their bodies against the wall until you pile up enough pieces to step over.
And that’s true! Grinding away at your story is the only way to get through it.
But the funny thing is, inspiration doesn’t care what you’re working on. Inspiration strikes when it strikes and it says what it says and it says no more, and it won’t be forced and it won’t be guided.
And the funny thing is, sometimes it strikes in ways that are not immediately useful. Case-in-point: today I’m grinding out edits for my superhero story and bang, crash, the lightning flashes and provides me with the answer to a problem that had my other story thoroughly and entirely mud-stuck. And because I was sitting at the computer anyway, working on the first story, it was easy for me to tab over, write out some notes on the other idea so it didn’t flitter away into the screaming chasm of my inadequate brain to be forgot forever, and get back to what I needed to be working on.
Which is to say that when you’re not feeling the inspiration, you have to work on something Do something, anything to keep the juices flowing and the soil fertile, because you have no way to know when the lightning is going to strike. But you darn sure want to be ready when it does.
Thanks to being back at work, and restoring some semblance of normality, I was able to sit down and do a little bit of work on the ol’ novel again. And as I opened up the document and began to type, I was worried it would feel a little weird. Like seeing that person in the hall who used to be a friend, but then you stopped saying hi and only nodded at each other in the hall, and then even that stopped, so you had no idea what had happened with your relationship.
Me and my novel were like that. Not estranged, just strange with each other.
Luckily, a collection of words is incapable of holding a grudge or getting salty about unsent thank-you cards or misremembered first names. The discomfort with the work lasted about thirty seconds.
I’ve found this often to be the case, though I always seem to forget it when I most need to remember it: the story is there, waiting for you, whenever you’re ready to pick up the pen. Or the brush. Or the typewriter. Or whatever. Just because you haven’t written anything down yet doesn’t mean you never will. Just because you haven’t worked on it in a week, doesn’t mean you can’t work on it today. Or tomorrow. Or next week after that Thing In Your Life That’s In The Way loosens its chokehold on your windpipe just a smidge. When you finally decide (or become able) to make time for it again, the words will come.
Kinda like the tap around back of that old abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the woods. You’d think the water company would shut off service, but for some reason, once you fight your way past the murderous crows and rampaging squirrels and the nest of poisonous vipers that for some reason have twined themselves into a humanoid mass that chases you for miles through the dark wood, you brush off the cobwebs, twist the faucet, and out comes a stream of cool, fresh, water. And, probably, the water is laced with as-yet-unidentified bacteria that will slowly eat you from the inside out, but you won’t know that for weeks. But that’s a problem for future you. For now, you’re happy.
If you don’t like the weather in Atlanta, just wait five minutes, amirite?
Man, another post about the weather. It’s almost like I’m turning into one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types, even though I hate those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. (Who am I kidding — I am one of those hippy-dippy tree-hugging types. At least three times a week, I call my wife out to the back porch to the tune of “honey, check out this sunset!” She indulges me not quite half the time, which is enough to keep it happening.)
We wake up this morning to a blanket of frost laid over everything: grass, bushes, roofs, everything. The kind of crystalline coating that’s second only to a pristine blanket of pure white snow — and given how often we get that in Atlanta, we’ll take it. Of course, that frost is lovely to look at it, but it’ll put you on your behind as you’re coming down the stairs as likely as not. Not to mention the damage it can do to your garden, if that’s the kind of thing you care about.
Point is, it settles in and sort of puts the whole world to sleep — lets you know that winter’s coming. Makes you want to hunker down and sleep an extra hour. Just wait it out. Which I would do, if I only had a brain. Of course, I don’t, so as soon as the opportunity allows, I’m up with gloves and hat on going for a run, with the lawns still slick and my breath fogging the air all around me.
It’s my second-favorite kind of run, behind only those cool upper-50s, lower-60s mornings we get down here to kick off spring and wrap up the fall.
But as I’m out, something jumps out at me that I’ve never really paid attention to before:
The frost is receding, but not without a fight. The sun is burning it off everywhere it falls, but like a starved jackal hovering over a fresh spot of roadkill, the frost sits heavy in the receding shadows of the trees.
Tenacious. Fleeting, but tenacious.
Kinda like that frost that can settle into the writer’s bones if the day doesn’t get off to the right start. Freezes you out, makes you slip. You can’t quite get started, so you put it off … but then life catches up. Work. Kids. The daily emergency.
And just like that frost clinging to the shadows and pretending that the day won’t come, that funk will settle into your head and throw you off for the whole day. The fact is that for those of us who maybe haven’t quite “made it” yet (whatever your personal metric for “made it” may be), or for those of us who struggle to fit the time into the day to make the words come, the resolve to write can be horribly fragile. A single slip anywhere can derail the whole day, put you behind your word count, and generally make you feel like a failure.
The fact is that, like so many other things in life, the frost is fleeting. The setback that puts you off for five minutes, or fifteen, or even an hour, isn’t as big as it looks. The trees on my morning run couldn’t hide the frost for long, and the little derailments can’t wreck your day if you don’t let them.
The frost can’t abide the sunlight, and neither can the demons and devils that try to stop you. Keep chasing the light.
Metaphor Monday is back on Monday — the planets must be in alignment!
Our washing machine crapped out this weekend.
Well, it seemed like it had crapped out.
One way or another, it looked like it had crapped out, and it gave us a scare for a good hour or so.
It was Sunday, and Sundays are laundry days in our house. So, after the morning shopping run was done and the kids were down for quiet time (they don’t take naps anymore, but we’ve convinced them — mostly — that quiet time is a thing, and thank goodness for it), we took some laundry downstairs, cranked up the machine, and sat back to relax for an episode of Stranger Things. (Sidenote: Now that Stranger Things is over again, what do I do with my life??)
About an hour later, I realized that the washer was still running. Not only was it still running, but there was still water running through the supply lines. You know, that low rush in the walls that’s completely inaudible until it happens when it shouldn’t? Having experienced three pipe blow-outs in our old house, this is a sound that immediately gives me the cold sweats.
So the water is hissing away in the walls, and in the quiet after the episode, suddenly, I hear it. Sweat breaks out all over. I run downstairs expecting to find the entire basement under a couple inches of standing water — but, no. Weird, but welcome. I look at the washer. The dial hasn’t advanced from where I started it an hour ago. Weird. I open the lid. Water is pouring into the machine. Weirder still. I turn off the machine. Water stops. Turn it back on. Water pours. At this rate, it should have flooded long ago, but it hasn’t. I turn the dial to the end of the cycle. The machine spins up, leaves the clothes damp as expected, and all is still.
I start the machine again. It’s an older unit and has some gremlins (occasionally shuts off for no discernible reason, and every few months, like a 99% trained housecat, will leave a gross little puddle in the laundry room), so maybe it just needed a good solid reboot. No dice. The water runs and runs and the cycle won’t advance.
What I’ve learned in my near-decade (help!) of home ownership is that when appliances or plumbing break down, the solution is either really simple or really expensive with not much middle ground, with a decided tendency towards really expensive. So the cold sweat breaks out again. (I was still sweaty. You’re welcome.) I do what any savvy, 21st-century thirty-something homeowner would do and fire up youtube. Within minutes I have twenty browser tabs open describing how to open up my washing machine, how to rewire it, how to drain it, how to rebuild it out of toothpicks, and a third round of cold sweat is starting up (by now I should really have changed my shirt, which wouldn’t be a problem, except that my shirts are in the laundry that is not getting washed). It’s all very involved, very detailed, very time-consuming, and very daunting.
I dive in anyway, take the cover off the machine and expose a nest of wires and motors and dials and tubes. Not much of it looks like what I saw in the videos or the diagrams, which isn’t that big a deal but it starts the panic. I was looking at the wrong video; maybe I’ve got the wrong problem. Maybe this is way out of my league. Maybe I’m making things worse by even tinkering with the machine.
The Howler Monkey of Doubt starts in. You don’t know what you’re doing. Give up. Suck it up and get ready to pay a repair technician. Also, forget about getting laundry done tonight, and start panicking over what your kids are going to wear to school tomorrow. And what you’re going to wear, for that matter. How many days can you last? How much is it gonna cost to get it fixed? Do you even have a single pair of clean underwear right now? All I want to do is lay down in bed, pull the covers up over my eyelids, and sleep until the problem fixes itself, which is to say, for EVER.
I sit for ten minutes, doing nothing. Then I return to the problem. I refine my google searches. I think about what the real problem is. I search some more. Within about five more minutes, I’ve got a likely solution that doesn’t even require any tools. The cold sweat is back. It can’t be this simple, can it?
Actually, it can.
I lift the drain hose from its pipe. There’s a wicked gurgling, whooshing sound — I half expect water to explode out of the walls and realize my nightmares — but that’s it. The drain hose was a bit too deep in the pipe, the water level got a titch too high, and a siphon was created — whenever water was poured into the machine, the siphon pulled it right out through the drain. The machine could never get to the proper amount of water, so it could never start its cycle. But there was nothing mechanically wrong with it, so it didn’t shut itself down. Likewise, the drain was functioning properly, so it never overflowed. The very next minute, I restart the machine, watch it fill up with water — and then kick over to the wash cycle.
Phew. That was a lot to tell. So what’s the metaphor?
There are two, actually. One for me and one for the machine.
Let’s start with the machine. There was nothing mechanically wrong with it, as I pointed out before — just a simple user error that caused it to tall into an actually rather interesting physics loop (it’s called “siphoning,” and it works exactly like extracting gas from your car’s tank). Thing is, the user error that caused the physics problem happened several months ago and the problem never happened until now. Which means that I laid the groundwork for this little headache months ago and spent the intervening time dancing on the edge of disaster, never even knowing what might happen. Like an aneurysm in the brain, the drain pipe in the wall was just hanging there, waiting to form a seal and blow up my Sunday. Maybe the machine getting jostled as I loaded the clothes into it caused it to make that seal; maybe the spin cycle on the machine’s last run knocked it over the edge. There’s no telling, except that whatever it was could have gone wrong at any time.
If that ain’t a perfect metaphor for life, I don’t know what is. Everything, all the time, is hanging by a thread, and everybody is running around with multiple pairs of scissors in their hands. Eventually, one way or another, that thread is gonna get cut, and your washing machine is gonna run for a few hours and (at best) run up your water bill or (at worst) flood your basement.
Which brings me to the human element. What I really wanted to do when the washer broke down was hide from the problem. Think about literally anything else. Hope it would work itself out, or (when that didn’t work) just hire somebody to come in and deal with it. But after taking a few minutes to get my head together and assess the problem like a person who has a brain, I was able to not only discern that the problem wasn’t all that bad, but to fix it myself with almost no strain.
Which is to say that sometimes our problems are not all we make them out to be. Sometimes that crippling writer’s block you’re suffering isn’t the end of your writing career, but just a sign that you need to not focus on that particular character in that particular chapter right this second. Just like my particular appliance issue called for a little less soldering iron and voltmeter, a little more flashlight and paper towel, sometimes the writing life is a little less throw-the-laptop-and-all-you’ve-ever-created-into-the-dumpster-and-set-it-ablaze and a little more maybe-just-go-write-a-vignette-with-talking-cats-holding-office-jobs.
In other words, just go work on something else for a while and let it open your brain up.
Now excuse me while I go draft a scene for my new series. It’s basically Milo & Otis meets The Office.