My relationship to the written word seems to have become somewhat combative in the last several years. There's a wall of books lurking over there, silent and baleful. Child rearing, creative distractions and financial stress have all taken their toll on me. Not having the time even to read, words stopped being my friends and instead became a perfunctory tool with which I would write my children’s monthly home school reviews or argue with strangers (wrong! Strangers who are wrong!) on the internet. My blog, my one blessed relief, became less an outlet than a growing guilt trip, as I watched other people monetize the hell out of their own blogs. Mine became a study of the errata of the domestic, home educating life, where my readers could watch my children grow and listen to me talk about chickens. There’s only so much the average person wants to know about me learning about chickens, and they surely aren’t going to pay me for the pleasure.
I lost my sense of humor and my muse. I lost my connection to my inner self. I sewed my curtain tight.
So this wall of books I have, instead of looking like a portal to other worlds and possibilities, became a wall of shame. A whispering stack of judgment about the ways I have failed myself and my family. J.K. Rowling’s every interview made me wince with guilt. Stephanie Meyer made me want to stab myself in the eye. She’s proof—and hey, Stephen King backs me up here—that you don’t have to be good to be published, loved, and well rewarded for it. My friends published their stuff, here and there. When his best friend published a young adult novel, even my own beautiful husband, in a sadly misshapen attempt to motivate me, said
“Heh! He beat you to it!” Yeah, everyone’s beating me to it. Look at the bookshelf.
In July of 2011, I stole a few moments to slam some of this frustration with stolen time into a file on my computer, to be forgotten until today:
“I am swept along with the tides in my life. Currents run through the life of a family who stay together day after day. Just now, I noticed my well-worn copy of Tolkein’s The Hobbit, still atop my desk where I set it this morning en route to the back porch. I placed it there, intending to grab a sweater and a few more ounces of coffee. Still it sits, sweater long ago used and replaced, coffee a distant memory. Even now I can’t remember what I did that distracted me from my idyllic intention to drink coffee and read Tolkien on the back deck, enveloped in the sounds and fragrances of an awakening forest. “
We no longer live in that forest. I will never have read The Hobbit by that creek.
Then there is Agnes herself. My new friend Lori thinks she’s an amalgam of my mother, and that might be true. But Agnes is a great stopper to the creative flow, or she was until Write! happened. And believe me, Write! happened. It wasn’t just something I attended, or something that I worked. It was indeed both those things and a retreat as well. But it was far more, and even now I fail to completely grasp the words to express the experience and its transmutative impact on each of us. I have heard everything from born again and rebirth to gang bang group therapy and a communal draining of an emotional cyst. Someone else describes being opened like a coconut by a machete. Several others describe physical symptoms of release, in just about every possible way a human can let go of things.
Release, Relief, Renewal, Rebirth. All of us came as artists, specifically writers, with intent to connect to our own creations. What I observed was that we connected quite organically to each other. Through that, perhaps we became each other’s muses? A week later, I still don’t know. We were together long enough to see each other’s raw selves, our simple selves. The hostel environment required us to shed a lot of social constructs that would have prohibited those connections in a normal workshop. We talked about our ghosts and the ghosts of others. We read to each other, we sang to each other, we played with each other. We parted soon enough to avoid conflicts and demoralization. We left right at the height of our bloom. In fact, most of us left that weekend in tears, talking about feeling as if we’d fallen in love with all the others.
It was violent, it was sudden, and it was loud. It was creation. Further, it was permission. I’ve been stuffing for a while, always putting other things ahead of my writing; because it wasn’t bringing an income, it wasn’t engaging enough, I wasn’t focused enough. Writers are solo creatures, and left alone in the dark long enough, we’ll start chewing on our livers. We all left Doe Bay with permission to write. That’s it. Go write, writer-person, said the other writer-person. It’s simple, but to a writer… to a writer that is permission to breathe.
Agnes, to bring back a bad penny, is not a writer at the retreat, but a character I’ve been dancing with since college. She’s been hovering on the edge of my consciousness like a moth outside a lantern, for as long as I can remember being an adult. Over the years, I have produce vignettes for her, and devised a plot for her novella. I’ve met her husband, her son and her chickens. I’ve walked her property in the woods of the North Carolina foothills. I’ve smelled her German-American cooking. But while writing is an art, it is also a craft, and Agnes had no catharsis. In all these years, I have never been able to discover a way to make her tolerable for anyone else, let alone give this character to a novel in any sensible way. I needed to excavate her arc, to ransack her story deeply enough to find out what the hell happens to her to make her worth reading. She’s worth writing, for me, because she is a demon I need to exorcise. She’s been in my way. And in a flash of insight during, of all things, a play-writing workshop, I got what I needed. The bitch let down her guard long enough for me to see what it is she’s been so zealously guarding all this time. Now I can see her, now I can tell her.
Now, I have hope and a bit of joy. Now, I can Write!