Tuesday, February 28, 2012

If you see a shadow

I'm doing my work. This is my work—sitting at a desk in front of an over-priced laptop, looking out the window at the iced ridges that mark the tire tracks of the driveway, at the heaped snow over the compost barrel, heaped snow over the untrimmed raspberry bushes, massive plowed icebergs that line the doorstep's narrow entrance. It's one of those days when my life seems spectacularly useful and useless at the exact time, like putting words onto digital paper is the most important thing anyone could do and also an utter waste of effort.

I've been putting aside farm and fiction for a grant-writing project, an application for a nursing college in Uganda. I believe with my whole heart in the project—my blessed grandmother left money for it, to educate nurses to have the career she always dreamed of—and still it feels an exercise in futility. Lining up the numbers in a spreadsheet, telling the story of a school that may never be to faceless officials.

As a distraction, I pull out back issues of The Sun, and read essays by writers who choose each word with such exquisite care, such riveting diligence, such careful composition, that I feel my heart breaking in my chest. How can my words ever measure up? How can it at all be important for me to spend another one of my precious hours here, at this desk, crocheted flowers blanketing my knees, dim light bluing outside, and press my fingers into keys to make words? What value can they have to roll back the tide of despair?

I read this quote by Gandhi, another of those quotes intended as inspirational but which generally make me feel as if nothing I do will ever be good enough: "think of the poorest person you have ever seen and ask if your next act will be of any use to him." If I think of her, is it enough for me to sit at my desk and make up stories? Is it enough to steal an hour or two from Uganda to write words that may never be read?

A quote from the essay I'm reading, “Bruised,” by Joe Wilkins: “Here's what often happens: some workman, after banging away all day, comes in the house to say he's finished and catches me on the couch in my sweat pants, staring at my laptop, and he gives me one of those eye-rolling looks, one of those this-guy-is-just-pathetic shakes of the head.”

I know that look. I've internalized it to the point where I give it to myself.

Still, I'm managing to read both Jane Eyre and Moby Dick right now. Both are taking me months to get through, and are books that would never be published today, would be deemed “unmarketable,” “too slow,” ”too difficult.” They don't follow all the rules of fiction I have overlapping on my bulletin board—prohibitions against adverbs, Cinematic Structure in Three Acts, The Hero's Journey, beautiful jagged Freitag arcs I doodle when I'm blocked, McKee's universal laws of inciting incident, positive turn, and character desire.

What am I saying? Both books follow all of those rules. Both books are perfect, in their own flawed way. Melville is astonishing. He takes entire chapters to describe the substructure of a sperm whale's tail. Bronte likewise. She wastes pages on difficult dialog, and through those alien words I see in intricate detail a a plain, elfish girl, with a backbone of iron. They both make me want to live a better life. They both make me live a better life.

Is it enough? Are any words enough?

No comments: