I recently bought a refrigerator magnet at Whole Foods, three and a half inches square, white letters, all lowercase, on a black background. It says “never never never give up (winston churchill).” I wonder how Winston Churchill would have felt about being in parentheses, his name several font sizes smaller than his words. It’s made in the USA, “with certified wind power,” thank goodness. I got it because I decided for the second time in my adult life, the first time being nine years ago, to be a writer with a capital W, most definitely not lowercase. And yet this is only the third morning since then that I have gotten out of bed after my cell phone alarm has gone off at 5:00, put on yesterday’s outfit lying in a heap in front of my dresser, walked downstairs to my desk, and attempted to write something. Anything.
I thought if I looked at that magnet every day with it just staring back it me, stark against my white refrigerator as I go about my business in the kitchen, it would guilt me into starting and finishing a project. I remember hearing something about Churchill taking up painting later in life and that also somehow comforts me. At the age of 40 I realize that I have spent many, many years squandering any innate creative talents I may have had, that not writing until now was an act of fear and capitulation to the idea that only John Updike or E.B.White or Cynthia Ozick were up to the task. So seeing that magnet as I take the American cheese and faux whole wheat bread out of the fridge to make my daughter a heart-shaped grilled cheese sandwich or wash the dishes at 12:00 a.m. when I should already be asleep so I can wake up five hours later I think, ok, maybe I’m not that dumb, I’ll at least give it a try.
Other days I say fuck it, I suck, everything I do sucks, why fucking bother, and I take the magnet down and send it to Siberia: the junk drawer below the kitchen radio. It’s packed with rubber bands recycled from plastic strawberry pint containers and cracked CD jewel cases and twisty ties from old bread bags and ear plugs and dental floss and miniature white board markers with erasers on their tops and an alligator that grows to six times his original size when placed in water and allowed to sit there for a whole week. Enjoy it in there, Winnie, with the two paper clips and almost empty matchbooks and dead 9-volt battery, the total chaos, the unnecessary clutter, the wasted space. And don’t bother knocking because I’ll pretend not to hear you.
His absence leaves a space in the upper right corner of the freezer door next to a clipping from the AAA newsletter detailing the precise ways I can exploit my membership card to save money at the local outlet store mall and the wallet-sized photo of my husband sitting cross-legged on the floor of our living room, holding his white Fender Stratocaster, my daughter on his right and my son strumming along in his lap like an infant Wolfgang Van Halen. A little blank box in a crossword puzzle waiting to be filled; if only I knew what the clue is asking for and could solve it in without needing to cheat. Is writing going to be one long looking up of the answers?
For the purposes of writing this essay (yes, essay, there, I’ve said it as if it is real and I will finish and publish it) I’ve taken “Colonel Walden” out of his holding cell for a brief furlough on my desk, leaned up against the bottom of my computer monitor, in front of and thus blocking other “totems” I’ve collected: three bookmarks emblazoned with other statements that point out the obvious. Wisdom begins in wonder (Socrates, all caps). It is never too late to be what you might have been (George Eliot, standard conventions). There is only one happiness in life—to love and be loved (George Sand, with quotation marks). They’re engraved, two metal, one leather, finished off at the tops with ribbons and cords, not the paper kind you get at the children’s room of the local library advertising the latest mindless PBS programming for kids and which usually end up in a crumpled ball on the floor of the car under the driver’s seat. I’ve lined them up on the monitor stand like little medals won on Field Day, the idea being if I have enough trinkets and reminders and good juju, just read enough Tarot cards or write enough affirmations, I will actually be good at this. The talent will just pour out of me like hot, fresh coffee, home-brewed.
What I don’t want to do is clean up the spill. Revision is housework that I’m already behind on in the life I don’t live on paper. Thinking about all that needs to be done, the sorting of paragraphs into white and darks, the wiping off of scattered adjectives from the counter, usually sends me to the couch to watch The Daily Show and eat sour cream and onion Pringles and caramel bull’s eyes.
The books on writing—and I think I’ve read them all, each at least three times—recommend keeping your butt in the chair. They all say to keep going even as one sentence after another comes out you feel yourself more and more horrified by how utterly awkward and simplistic they are. The inspiration hits me at the desk, one famous writer says. Writing my novel was the most fun I’ve ever had, says another, and now I’m thinking that person must be on some kind of medication. How is this fun, this starting of draft upon draft of poems, personal essays, short stories, novels even, and just letting them sit there to collect like leftovers in Tupperware containers shoved to the back of the fridge next to the old pickles, never opening them up and nuking them in the microwave for a few seconds to see if they still taste ok? What if I could just finish the thoughts and ideas without having to dump them in the trash, container and all, because the mold is permanently stuck to the sides of it? Or how about bringing them to the neighbors, so they never even make it to the fridge but to an actual publication of some sort?
Donald Murray says to sit. Wait. Listen. Write. Maybe that means not keeping the pen moving, which would be the opposite of Natalie Goldberg’s advice. Whom do you believe? Mastering the craft of incessant philosophical waffling is clearly not my problem. And so the beginning of a project that might have a morsel of potential just stays flat and deflated in its translucent pink four pocket portfolio, buried under a pile of bills for days and often weeks on end, full of suggestions jotted down in purple ink at the last writer’s group meeting, nestled in with all the other unfinished pieces, because it’s so much safer to just start something else.
Julia Cameron recommends writing “morning pages,” three pages of whining and complaining on looseleaf notebook paper that you’re supposed to put in a manila envelope and never look at again, this exercise somehow freeing you to cough up a National Book Award winner. But do I really need to do more of what I already do verbally, morning, noon, and night? How does spending the precious few moments of peace and quiet I manage to collect for myself each day going on and on about how much I blow at writing or how mad I am about having to do laundry or go buy more environmentally unfriendly diapers at Costco help me produce any actual writing? I have the feeling the British Bulldog would have said, just shut up and get cracking.
It is so much easier to just stop. What did Winston do when the painting was crap? Do all writers generate utter garbage some of the time, just as I’m doing right now? I find it hard to believe that Joyce Carol Oates ever sits down at her desk to write her 1,000th novel and starts to feel as though her brain cells have left her body, her vocabulary shrunk to the size of a piece of Pirate’s Booty as she writes from her unconscious and not a bank of memorized facts, not “five paragraph essays” and other synthetic tasks cooked up by the people who brought you standardized testing, in which you spend your entire childhood pushing important sounding words out of your short-term memory and into insignificant “papers” that will never be read by anyone but a teacher.
When I follow Donald Murray’s advice, though, I feel calm. I realize how much of my life I have avoided sitting alone in silence. The TV has always been on. I could never understand my father’s need to turn off the car radio and keep it off until now. Without the silence I’ve done nothing but consume other people’s ideas and products to quell a constant fear of dying, of my kids getting sick or hurt, of not being able to pay the bills or ever get out of debt. Once I decided to be a writer I started to think I had cured my anxiety. Now I’m an artist! I’m so true to who I really am! But it just transferred onto something else, like the person who quits smoking but gains twenty pounds. Doing as the magnet recommends, getting up early every morning no matter what and plowing through drafts that might have a total of three decent sentences in them, if I’m lucky, only to redraft eight times and then have six decent sentences, or to consider the thing finally finished and send it somewhere and be laughed out of the game—this is what scares me shitless now.
One thousand words. Carolyn See says to write 1,000 words a day or do two hours of revision five days a week for the rest of your life. After an hour of attempting either I feel like I need to get up and do something else, like pop a Ritalin. Staying in my seat, forcing myself to, can only be likened to filling in blue books during a three hour final exam, the beauty of that being I could always be a one-draft pony, never the chance to revise once time was up. But two hours straight of writing, or fixing writing, in some voluntary way, actually compelling myself to do it, not because I have to but because deep down somewhere I want to, is harder than any test I ever took.
When I told my mother I was writing this, she pointed out that putting a magnet near a computer is not such a good idea. Which means that I have to put the elder statesman back. Where he really belongs.
Rumpus original art by Rachael Schafer.