You feed in kernels, salt, and oil, and in a few minutes it begins overflowing with savory buttery goodness. Golden fluffs of transcendent flavor.
When I worked at the movie theater, we’d make bonus batches — a batch with double the salt and oil. Absolute heaven. Probably shaved a few weeks off our lives with every bucket, but we were seventeen, what did we care?
Anyway, I figure a writer’s brain is like that. The hopper spins round and round churning out the ideas at a ridiculous rate, the fluffy poofed tidbits spilling out in a cascade. Except instead of the lovely glass enclosure, the writer’s brain is a popcorn popper spinning over a great black void that swallows up all the sun-kissed salty bits. (1. I’m really hungry and would eat a whole bucket of popcorn with great vengeance right now. 2. Sun-kissed salty bits sounds dirty, upon further review.)
Most of those ideas go right down the memory hole.
Doing a little bit of daily writing, I figure, is a way to put the hopper in its glass case, at least for a few minutes; this is the benefit, I think, to doing a bit of unscripted, unpurposed writing every day. You get a time capsule, almost, of whatever you were thinking on a given day. More than once I’ve had the thought that “oh yeah, I wrote something about that in my Drivel this morning, let me go back and read it.”
My problem is, my handwriting is atrocious, so my lovely glass case is smeared and scratched and probably not worth looking into.
I dunno, I thought there was a metaphor in there somewhere, but all this post did was make me even hungrier.
“Upheaval” is just one possible name for a novel one could write about the events of 2020 to date. (We could have said the same back in April, for that matter, but 2020 continues not to disappoint.) I know we always say it about the times we’re living in, but these are strange, confusing, disorienting times.
More to the point, our entire working situation has been thrown into upheaval (again), and that’s why I missed my quickie yesterday. (We’re giving up on full-time face-to-face learning for all students in favor of a hybrid model.) Emergency meetings. Students and parents in a panic. Heck, teachers in a panic. Dogs and cats living together.
So I come to you this morning, and I vow to come again this evening.
Apropos of nothing at all, yesterday marking the end of “normality” in our school happened to line up with me closing the book on my latest handwritten journal. (I (try to) write about three pages every morning during the week by hand. I do this when I first arrive at work, because if my wife catches me about it at home, she teasingly remarks “dear Diary” as she walks past with her coffee, which as a man, I cannot abide.) Where, at one time in my life, I would have ascribed some cosmic significance to this unexpected alignment, I am now happy to declare it a coincidence and move on.
It’s still interesting, though, to ponder the symbolic possibilities of such things. Filling out the final pages of one journal and writing anew on the pristine pages of a fresh one has that lovely poetic feel of “old things finished” and “new things begun” that any writer worth his salt would do well to put a fine point on if they were writing such a thing into a novel. (Though why the novel would focus on a person’s journal, and specifically on finishing one journal and starting a new one, is a head-scratcher.)
I mention it only because it really is strange that these two things should align. By all accounts I should have finished this journal weeks ago, but for the fact that — as regular readers may have surmised — I lost a bit of gumption over the summer and neglected the daily write more than was reasonable. Further, I was certain that our schools would make this change earlier than we have.
So did the universe steer me to this moment, where pen and paper and pedagogy (yeah okay that was a stretch) collided?
No. The universe has better things to do, and certainly doesn’t care about us, and for that matter, is not conscious. These things just happen.
(Sleeping in is, of course, relative when you have kids under the age of TEENAGER because they are up at the crack of dawn to ask you for cereal and ask you to put cartoons on and to torment the pets and to fight with each other and to make messes and to tell you about their dreams and HOLY COW KID IT’S BARELY 7 AM)
Why not, right? Wife and I are working from home. Kids are schooling from home. And since we don’t have to drive in to work, getting ready for work doesn’t have to start until about twenty minutes later. And since we’re almost certainly not going to see our co-workers face-to-face, the getting ready itself doesn’t take as long. And since time in the larger sense is one big jello mold we’re all wading through in slow motion, the point of all this feels obscured, if not outright lost.
And, as these things tend to do, the effects compound and magnify each other, a snowball rolling downhill turning into a boulder and then an avalanche. Don’t have to get up quite so early so we sleep in a bit. And since we’re gonna sleep in a little bit, we stay up a little later. And since we’re gonna stay up a little later, why not let the kids stay up a little later? And those dishes in the sink? They’ll keep until tomorrow. And the laundry piling up? We’ll make it to the weekend. (Post-lockdown, the standard for “dirty” laundry might shift in ways some of us are not entirely comfortable with.)
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. There are certainly a lot of thinkpieces going around right now that tell you it’s okay to take a step back, to breathe, to relax. It may in fact be a good thing to let some things slide, hit the snooze button a few more times. Veg out. Wait till it’s over. And I can see some benefit to that.
But I also know that after a couple weeks of that, I feel like garbage. Not getting as much work done as I’d like. Letting the house be not just lived-in-messy but actually messy-messy — because why not? We (and by we I mean 85% the kids, 10% the pets, 10% me, and -5% my wife) are just gonna mess it up again before you can blink. And the work I’m not getting done, well, there’s certainly tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow).
So this morning I decided I was going to get up early again and get after it. Not even super-early — not chasing that 4:30 AM madness I’m on during the regular world of work — just 5:30. Woke up (ahead of the alarm actually; got to steal some of those elusive half-naps in the minutes before the sounding of the bell), got dressed, went for a run. Got back, took the dog out (for a bit of a walk, rather than just letting her into the backyard. You know, because I had some extra time). Did the dishes from last night. Sat down, did my morning pages. By that time, it was seven and the sprout was up — but I already had the drop on the day, and I was ready for him. Made his breakfast, got him settled. After all that, I still had an hour before I even had to think about starting the workday.
I feel good — like just, generally, not-really-sure-why, everything-might-just-be-okay good –for the first time in days if not weeks. I feel optimistic, energetic. I’m getting a few things done. (Heck, I’m here making a post when it’s been *QUARANTINE TIME HAS NO MEANING* days since I did that.) I can’t scientifically say that it’s all because I got out of bed early, but there’s certainly a correlation. A correlation worth investigating (again) tomorrow.
They say the little things make a big difference. I think we all know that, but sometimes it helps to get that little reminder.
Every profession has ’em. Hammer, scalpel, ruler, drill. Depending on the profession, the tools become more or less important. A manufacturer or fabricator lives and dies by his tools; a
Me, I’m not particularly arsed about the tools of my writing. I have some tools that I like — Scrivener being the big one for work on my main project — but I’ve worked with other, less flashy processors in the past. And when it comes down to it, I could work on any clunky old laptop or desktop computer; hell, in my particularly motivated phases I’ve even typed project notes on my phone. Sometimes I’ll use a bluetooth keyboard for that, sometimes the dreaded touch screen. (Though typing anything of substance that’s more than a line or two on a touchscreen is enough to make me want to rip out what little remains of my hair.)
The writer’s tools, it seems, are largely digital these days, no?
I mean, there are typewriters, but I’ve given my thoughts on typewriters before: in short, if you think a typewriter is essential to your process in any significant way, you are fooling yourself and being pretentious besides. They’re not bad, not at all, but they’re impractical, and to use one is to needlessly draw attention to yourself just for the sake of using antiquated equipment.
So. Digital tools. Right?
Digital tools may be awesome and nigh indispensable, but to me, if you’re a writer, you can’t get away from the written word. The literally written word. You know: you learned to make them in grade school? You hated every minute of it? Your craft for creating it atrophied over time like a vestigial tail until now your written words look like the frenzied scratchings of a terrified animal on your back door?
Handwriting. There’s something almost magical about it, about putting words to paper directly using your hand and an implement designed to put marks on things. I do rather a lot of handwriting lately (and it’s more than a little bit of the reason I haven’t posted here as much in the last year or so — because what I would otherwise be blathering into the digital expanse I instead scrawl into my growing collection of Drivel notebooks) and I have strong feelings about it. A keyboard and computer (or, if you really, really insist, a typewriter… hnngggrrrrrh) is great for getting the words from your brain to the paper quickly — maybe maximally quickly (barring text-to-speech dictation programs but there I will grind my heels into the earth, fold my arms across my chest, and gruffly direct you to GET OFF MY LAWN). But maximally quickly is not always the best way to do a thing.
Handwriting, for me, forces me to slow down a little. Not a lot — I scribble pretty fast, and the crooked, haphazard stumble of my words on the page belies that — but I can’t write by hand as quickly as I type, not even close. When typing the words race out almost as quickly as I can conceive of them; when writing by hand, there are mental pauses as the hand catches up. Each next sentence gets to rest just for a moment, gets to simmer in the cognitive juices for a second or two before it goes on the page. I become more engaged with what I’m writing precisely because I have to slow down and I get the time to think about it.
So I take my writing by hand (but not my handwriting — because YEESH look at that picture up there) pretty seriously.
Then I went and did a dumb thing last year. I listened to a podcast featuring Neil Gaiman. There, Neil talks about process and experiences and all sorts of fascinating things (somehow everything Neil talks about seems to become fascinating to me, maybe that’s a character flaw) but along the way, he talked about his fountain pens. Something, I believe, about writing his first draft of American Gods in these stacks of notebooks using this series of fountain pens, and how he could retrospectively tell where he was and how he was feeling based on the ink and the color and all of that. Really singing the praises of his tools. (And of writing by hand, too, for that matter.)
And I thought, well, I’ve got to try it. This is a thing that a Real Writer does, I want to be a Real Writer, ergo, get out of my way while I plunk down some dollars to get me one of these things.
So I dithered a little bit before buying a fountain pen of my very own: A Pilot Metropolitan in purple, if you must know. I may have posted about it before. I certainly tweeted about it. (Twitter being the perfect place to boast about such trivialities.)
And I loved it! It wrote smoothly, but not just smoothly: like gliding across a frozen lake on skates made of butter. It was heavy and satisfying in the hand like a candlestick before you bash in Mr. Body’s skull, and the tip and the whole feel of writing with it was just so classy even though what I was using it for was so pedestrian and boring. It felt like putting on a dinner jacket to go to the grocery store.
It was my “Writer’s Pen,” the tool I not only wanted to use for my daily writing, but the one I needed, the one that made what I was doing feel special.
And then I broke it.
I mean on the one hand, the glib “this is why we can’t have nice things” quip is made for situations like this. On the other … I really liked my fancy pen.
I was preparing for my morning drivel session, perhaps holding a freshly steeping cup of tea in my other hand and my notebook and The Pen in the other, and it slipped through my fingers. Straight down, it dropped. Like a torpedo, or more accurately, like a Kamikaze pilot. Landed right on the nib (a horrible word for the business end of a pen like this, a word I never knew before I looked into fountain pens, a word that still makes me squeamish and giggly to use). You know when Elmer Fudd points his shotgun at Bugs Bunny, and Bugs sticks his finger in the barrel, and when Elmer pulls the trigger it goes off and blows the barrel out like a spent banana peel? That’s what the end of my pen looked like.
Well, looks like, because there’s no fixing it. These things — these nibs (squee!) — are machined and measured with meticulous precision to allow for air flow and capillary action with the ink and, well, there’s no repairing it. It was broken. Not only was it broken, but you can’t (to my knowledge) buy a replacement nib (tee hee!) for this pen — they’re just not expensive enough to justify it; you’re better off just buying a new pen.
And, sorry, I’m a teacher. Disposable income ain’t a thing I’m well acquainted with. I spent $12 on the thing the first time around, I wasn’t gonna spend another twelve bucks for a second one that I am surely equally likely to break given enough time (enough time, in this instance, being probably about three or four months seeing as that’s how long this one lasted me).
So I did my writing with a lesser pen, one of my old soldier Pilot G2’s. Until, a few days later, I misplaced that pen (having no particularly strong feelings for it) and had to do my drivel with a still lesser implement, a “Clik-Stik” out of a dollar store multipack.
But here’s the thing — as soon as I settled into a groove (which when writing by hand now only takes a few lines — a fraction of a minute) I wasn’t paying attention to the cheap pen in my hand and how it wasn’t my beloved fountain pen. I was paying attention to the words, to the process, to the writing. You know, I was paying attention to what mattered.
And then I rethought the whole thing. Having the fountain pen (and worse, relying on it) sort of flies in the face of my whole oeuvre: that brands don’t matter, money doesn’t matter, what matters is that you make the best out of what you’ve got, and who gives a Fargo if you’ve got the latest luxury sneakers on your feet or if you drive the fanciest car or if you have a full head of luxuriant hair? I’m a barefooted bald guy driving a twenty-year-old Camry, why am I mucking about with fancy pens?
Because I got distracted, that’s why.
I got delusions of grandeur. I got caught up in the tools of the craft instead of the craft itself and then I suffered this blow to my ego when I broke my tool. (Heh, heh.)
Which is easy to do. You don’t have to go looking for distractions: this is the 21st century on the internet, the distractions find you.
And you know? Sometimes a distraction can be a good thing. Sometimes it can be nice to try something new. Sometimes you want to break out the nice jacket for a quick run to the store. But at the end of the day, what matters is that you remember to bring home the eggs.
(Have I butchered that metaphor enough?)
All that is to say, I have been doing my morning pages for a few months since without a thought towards plunking down the cashola to replace my fountain pen, and my writing — and my thoughts about my writing — haven’t suffered a stitch.
(They’ve suffered for entirely different reasons.)
I haven’t thrown The Pen out. It seems too nice to do that, even though it’s now useless, to toss it aside like trash. It taught me a lesson, after all, and it was lots of fun while it lasted. But now, like the smashed-up drunk-driving car out front of the school during Prom week, it’s there to remind me of something.
So I still have this blarg, apparently, even though I’ve neglected it for a few weeks. Which is a nicer way of saying it than to say nearly a month.
But it’s not a desolate moonscape in the creative real estate of my brain. Far from it. In fact, it’s something like kismet that has me writing today on the topic of this post: the word “wrap”. It’s almost like Linda somehow psychically reached out and tapped my headspace and picked up on the juju I was giving off. Because this week — Wednesday, to be specific — I wrapped the first edit on my current project.
You know, the one that, along with a few extra responsibilities at work, ground me first to a halt and then into an anxiety I couldn’t shake to save my life. Panic attacks and existential doubt. A fog of doubt obscuring everything like a thick London pea soup. I didn’t touch my project for something on the order of seven or eight months, which, for a guy who’s always blathering on and on in his online space about the importance of momentum and the good feelings that creating brings, is, to put it lightly, a problem.
So to get back to the project — as I did toward the end of the last school year, in May — and even simply to start getting words on paper again, to be creating the story again, to be making clear, measurable improvements to the work again.
And now it’s done.
Well, not done. There are still fixes to be made, plants to be planted, narrative threads to be sewn up or trimmed, fluff to be excised. But if this novel-writing journey were a walk to Mordor, then this feels perhaps like arriving at Osgiliath. Not quite “almost there”, and certainly there are obstacles — and perhaps some of the hardest obstacles — ahead. But there’s more ground behind me than there is in front. And there’s a feeling about arriving somewhere, even if it’s not the last stop, that clears the head a little, that lifts the spirits. You stop, you relax, you stretch your legs. You check the map, survey the road ahead, start to realize that it’s not so bad, that you’ll be there before long if you can just keep pushing.
That’s where I’m at right now. Wrapping up a first-pass edit is a huge milestone to pass, and for a project I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish, it’s a milestone I am more than happy to commemorate.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is that I have taken a step back when it comes to the ol’ blarg here, and while I’m not particularly happy about that, it’s a tradeoff I can live with. The website has always been something I thought of as a diversion, a pressure release valve, a place to write to clear out the cobwebs or when I need to clean the slate after working on the novel. And, well, there just hasn’t been all that much pressure to release, because I’ve allowed myself to be okay with writing days that don’t go great. With missing days here and there. With spending a little time foundering around, letting ideas marinate, spending writing time just thinking about the project.
And as for writing about something that’s not the novel, well, I’m doing that now with my Morning Pages, where I drivel out a solid 7-800 words every morning, but without the added pressure of feeling like I have to polish and shape those words and keep them on topic for the purpose of posting them online.
Like I said, it’s a low-pressure environment, and it’s working.
And while that makes me think that maybe I need to reexamine what I’m doing with the blarg here, I kinda don’t want to go making new commitments or thinking too hard about something that’s just meant to be a bit of fun.
So I’m going to let it be what it is for now, keep shooting for a post or so per week, but keep my focus on the novel. Because getting a taste of a milestone like this has me wanting more again. I want to wrap this project for real, and I’ve already started the next edit.
All of which is to say, thanks for reading. Sorry I haven’t put as much here lately, but it’s only because I’m putting the words where they count, where (I hope) they’re doing the most good.