Sunday, October 19, 2008

Song cry

Late-blooming roses

My prospects are looking up, in ways that I can’t talk about for fear of jinxes. My last post may have appeared more depressing than it was intended. Yes, those are all things I’m thinking, but I have good days, too, like yesterday when I was driving down the twisting hill into the city, surrounded by oaks, the sun beating down. It makes me happy to be in Chattanooga in October. The weather is beautiful, seventy degrees in the day, sunny. It’s getting chilly at night, but no so cold it’s uncomfortable. I can still wander around in shirtsleeves.

I can’t recommend highly enough this article in the New Yorker. Reading it made me feel like God had reached down from heaven and touched me. At sixteen, in the Philippines, I was berating myself already for not having written the Great American Novel. I was certain that in order to be truly great, I had to be young when I achieved success. Not true, according to Gladwell. How thrilling is that?

My other epiphanious moment this week was reading this interview by Andre Dubus III. I haven’t read any of his fiction, so I can’t vouch for it, but I can vouch for his advice:
I tell this to my students — that they are here because they want to try and create art. Something beautiful in and of itself, that lives on its own. That will affect someone that will never love them. And let's try and work and find what those tools are. Good luck. I hope wonderful things happen. But you may as well get into the lesson now that the real prize is just doing it. Everything else is gravy. Even then it's not such gravy. Now you get reviewed. Anyone can say whatever they want. It's not all good. They have this idea, I probably had it, too, that when you have this hard-covered book all a sudden you've arrived. No, now you just have another level of difficulty. Which is the nature of mature living. It's the nature of adulthood. Reach this, and now bigger obstacles. Now I can climb a bigger mountain. Well, good here's the biggest mountain I've ever seen, right in front of me. You climb that. There's another mountain. And this one's got lightning at the top and lava. And there's a big hole...

Wow. After reading that the world was a much more beautiful place. Of course, it doesn’t sound beautiful, with all the back-breaking climbs and volcanoes, but that’s not the point. The point is that I need to be reminded sometimes, often, daily, hourly, that living itself is the destination, as cliched as that is. This week I’ve been struggling, and procrastinating, and debating internally the process of editing the novel I wrote last year and the short story I wrote this semester, or, heck, anything I’ve written, and it seems this insurmountable process, an unclimbable mountain, an impenetrable jungle. My prose already exists, on the page. How can I change it?

That sounds ridiculous. Of course I need to change it. But I see it there (I’m looking at a manuscript lying on my desk right now, staring at me with malice in its eyes) and I don’t know how to begin. How is this word better than that word? Do I need more words? Fewer words? Better words? Different words? I’m stymied, until I give up and go watch Saturday Night Live. Or a Keanu Reeves movie from the eighties, my latest favorite Netflix choice.

Realizing this about myself, though, is helping me accept that I am the second kind of experimental artist that Gladwell speaks of, and reading what Dubus says means that I just have to keep climbing the mountains. Writing is exactly like hiking. Specifically, like the Appalachian Trail. When I arrived at the Pennsylvania border, dreading the infamous rocks, I didn’t realize that the entire trail, state by state, got worse from that point. Every state was harder, more brutal, more impossible. It didn’t matter. I just had to keep walking, putting one foot in front of the other.

For writing, walking is simply spending time in front of the page. I sit here and stare at my manuscript until I take a pencil to it, or scissors, or until I rip it apart and rearrange it. Until I find an entry point. I haven’t done it successfully yet, but once I do, there’ll just be another mountain to climb.

I say this with hope. Knowing that there’s another mountain beyond this mountain makes this mountain feel so much more climbable. It doesn’t matter. Some days, on the trail, knowing the climbs were going to get worse depressed me more than I could bear. Other days, it filled me with hope. I was getting better, and there was more beauty around the bend.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Don’t panic

The Prodigal Son

On the boat, if I were on the boat right now, I’d probably be complaining about something. I’d be complaining about the heat, or mosquitoes, or my rolly anchorage, or the smell from the head. Here I have nothing to complain about but myself, my own indolence--there are no mosquitoes, no movement, no awful stink. I find myself wondering often, if it’s true what I’ve been accused of. Am I a person incapable of happiness? Incapable of contentment with myself? Was I even ever happy at my happiest, which I know remember as my halcyon days on Secret?

In some small, circumscribed ways, all my dreams have come true here. I have a basement turned into an exquisite office. Although I have a part-time job, I have almost limitless time to pursue my genuine career goals. I should be ripping off and chewing huge chunks of world-changing prose. Instead, I find myself thinking of all of the things I want instead of this. A bungalow on the beach. A cabin in the woods. A high-rise in the city. Limitless time. Not just enough time, but limitless time. What I want is nothing less than eternity. Nothing less than perfection, of myself and others.

Jesus said it: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

It’s another of those passages that used to disturb me immensely as a child, not so much in what it stated, but that no one took it seriously. Yes, it says that, everyone said. But it doesn’t actually mean that. Everyone was always saying that about the Bible. I could read it. I read it beginning to end. I knew what it said, but everyone said it didn’t say what it said. I knew it did.

The thing that rankles the most, like a constant toothache, is the thought of my boat. That’s the most imperfect thing of all. I’ve had a couple of buyers nibble at the bait, but I’m not committed enough to selling to reel them in. When I’m lying awake at night, staring at glow-in-the-dark stars, I contemplate options for returning on my own, the one-way ticket that always pops up in my dreams as the solution to all of my problems.

The problems remain, though. The recalcitrant diesel. The headstay. Solo sailing. Transportation. My dad has the same look in his eyes as I do when he remembers the boat, when we see the pictures pop up on the computer screensaver--a pained expression of loss and longing.

And failure. That’s what it boils down to for me. I didn’t have the expertise the task demanded, and I still don’t, and I failed. How can I have any faith that the rest of my life won’t end up the same way?