The dry season ended, all of a sudden, and the sky became dark and wet and the air turned cold and all the leaves fell. At first I was taken aback by all of this, because I hadn’t wanted it to happen. I was feeling like a victim of the seasons, like one of those people who lives in Portland but wishes they lived somewhere else but who won’t, for whatever reason, just move. But then I cranked up the space heater and pulled out the extra blankets and got a Netflix subscription, and now my trailer is a cozy little winter den with yellow lamps blazing and chicken stock bubbling on the stove and I never want to leave it, I only want to eat pears while I watch gossip girl and stroke Kinnikinnick, whose fur has been softened by the rain and who refuses to go outside and pee again until spring.
My life currently lacks direction. I purposefully set up my life this fall in such a way that I would have plenty of time to write. As summer was winding down I registered for just a few credits, knowing that between school and my two regular money gigs, I’d have lots of downtime left over. I’ll work on my book, I thought, and then in spring I’ll set off to hike the pacific crest trail. Isn’t life grand! Except now the rain is falling torrentially, sealing me indoors like a biblical flood, and I can’t write at all.
You know, I’ve read alot of books about the writing process. Books about writing by prolific authors I do not read, and books about writing by not-so-prolific authors who I adore. I’ve even read books on writing by authors who are neither prolific nor particularly admirable. Writers say lots of nice things about writing, and that’s nice, and it feels comforting. But they can’t ever answer the one question that I have, the question that never goes away. In fact, they never even try. The question seems pretty straight forward to me, but the fact that no writer-writing-about-writing has, as far as I know, addressed it, makes me wonder if I’m a fool for even asking it in the first place. My question-
What do you do when you are trying to write but you don’t feel like writing?
This question is not– What do you do when you want to write but you’re blocked?
The question is– What do you do when you don’t want to write? Like, at all? For a really really long time?
If there was a writing god, up on a mountaintop somewhere, I would climb to the top of that mountaintop and I would walk up to them and I would shout at them-
IS WRITING OR IS WRITING NOT MAGIC?
Because if writing is magic, then it’s probably not something that you should force yourself to do when you don’t want to do it. If writing is magic, then it’s probably not even possible to do it when you don’t feel like doing it. If writing is magic, and you don’t feel like writing for a whole year, even though you’re really, really tired of having nothing to show for yourself but a bunch of rambling personal essays on the internet, then there’s probably nothing you can do, but maybe wait. And do something else, like learn to be a dog musher. Or walk across the continent.
But if writing is not magic, then you’re a fool, and not only are you a fool but you’re a lazy fool, because if you had just one speck of discipline well then you could sit yourself right down at this here computer and write and write and edit and edit and ediiiiiiiiiiiiiit and then after a number of days had passed you would have a finished manuscript and then maybe you could find someone to buy it and then you would be a writer, a real writer, and you wouldn’t even have to move to the sub-arctic to learn to be a dog musher which is fine because you didn’t really want to do that in the first place, you just wanted to be a writer.
So there is the writing god, way up on the mountain top, and there is capitalism, way down in the hollows. Between the two I’m perched in a little alpine meadow, watching the clouds roll by, tearing the petals off daisies and trying to pretend that time is not passing.
So my life has no meaning right now, seeing as I’m neither writing, working towards anything in school, having adventures, or falling in or out of love with anybody. And so in an attempt to stuff the meaning back into my life, I’ve taken up Bikram yoga. Bikram yoga is like regular yoga except totally different, and that’s why the yelp reviews are so harsh. Because most people, I think, don’t like it. In regular yoga everyone is calm and the room is cool and if you need to pee you can just get up and pee. In Bikram yoga you’re not allowed to leave the room to pee but it doesn’t matter. You’re sweating so much fluid and you’re so dizzy and overheated that your bodily functions cease entirely. And the instructor stands on a mirrored podium and yells at you through a mic. LEAN back! Lean back! More back! More back! Farther back! Back! Back! BACK! Like they’re daring you to fall over. And it’s not only 105 degrees, there’s also no air circulation and it’s humid and close. It’s like if Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights was teaching you yoga in Florida in the summertime. And you weren’t allowed to open the windows.
Afterwards though I sit in the little courtyard in the rain and look at the faded prayer flags that have tangled in the trees and my sense of wellbeing shoots up to about five thousand percent. The melancholy of my stupid life actually starts to seem sort of beautiful, and as I walk the four blocks home in my sweat-drenched yoga clothes, clutching my crumpled mat, while the freezing rain falls around me, I notice how nice the rain can smell, like mushrooms and earth. And I remember when I first moved to Portland from the desert and how miraculous I thought it all was, the green and the wetness of November, the dripping conifers in the park and the steam rising off the ground. And the grey of the wet-season sky comes in so many different, subtle shades; smoke and soot and burnished steel and burning lead, each one invoking its own special flavor of melancholy. The emotional pallet of the Pacific Northwest wintertime.
So Bikram is helping me. And aside from taking up Bikram yoga, I’ve also adopted the Paleo diet, for no reason other than it’s extremely difficult to stick to, and so that takes up alot of my brain space that would otherwise be devoted to seething existential despair. Following the Paleo diet is satisfying in the way that having an eating disorder is satisfying, in that it makes you feel as though your life is under control. When I was a teenager I had an eating disorder- I’d memorized the caloric content in every food that I ate and I spent the day counting and recounting, adding things up in my head. My rules were simple- always be hungry, and eat as close to 1200 calories a day as possible, and never, ever eat more than 1800. I was super thin, and I fit perfectly into whatever I wanted to wear. My jawbone was alluringly angular, and nothing on my body folded when I moved. I was also super weak and always coming down with colds and things, constipated and riddled with allergies, not to mention always hungry. The worst part was that my boyfriend thought that this was my natural, healthy body type- he thought that this was how girls were supposed to look, and I never told him otherwise, and so I helped perpetuate his fucked up ideas of what women are supposed to be.
When I moved to Portland at nineteen and walked across the park at 22nd and Powell, feeling the damp grass soak my shoes, my eating disorder magically went away. I was making my own choices about my own life and I no longer needed it to make me feel as though I was in control. I started exercising and eating regular meals and I immediately gained about thirty pounds.
Following the Paleo diet doesn’t hurt me the way that starving myself used to hurt me, and so I feel pretty good about it. And it’s a fun challenge- kind of like that radio show where a caller presents the host with three imaginary ingredients and the host has to come up with a dinner made exclusively from those ingredients and a few random spices. I know, no-one listens to the radio anymore but I do, and it’s a real radio show. If the Paleo diet was that radio show then the caller would say, “Ok, your ingredients are Meat, Vegetables, Bacon Grease, and if you’re feeling really wild, a little bit of sweet potato or maybe a ripe plantain. What will you make?” As an addendum to my own personal version of the Paleo diet, I’ve added on as much dark chocolate (80+ percent) as I want. And of course in order to balance out all the discipline that’s required to not break down and binge on a giant bag of juanitas tortilla chips or a pot of gluten-free rice pasta, I’m allowed to watch as much Gossip Girl as I like. And play online scrabble. As much as I want.
And all of this, of course, makes me feel as though my life is under control. Under MY control. As if I can control anything. Like, I may not have the discipline to work on my manuscript, but at least I haven’t eaten any grains in a while. I may have all this writing just sitting around that just needs a bit of editing and maybe I could get it published somewhere, and here I am unable to work on it, but at least I can stand on one leg and fly forward like a bird in a really hot room without falling over or throwing up. It may be cold and raining outside, and I may be lonely, bored and directionless, but at least I have Netflix, and chocolate covered bacon. And my dogs. Who are awesome.
6 thoughts on “chocolate covered bacon and the meaning of the wintertime”
hi, I subscribed to your blog a long time ago and don’t think I’ve ever commented anything. so hi. we know people in common/i try to keep track of other writers within 2 or 3 degrees of separation. anyway. I wouldn’t comment, except I’ve been where you are–spent far too long there–and am now in an MFA program plowing through my novel (as well as having a few years of pre-MFA work under my belt).
I think almost all writers feel what you are describing and most do answer that question, only perhaps not with the exact language you are using. The common answer: writing is work, so work.
Specifically, I think you’re asking the wrong question. “Is it magic?” Why should magic be unrelated to difficult, painful, tedious and sometimes dreadful labor? Only in Amurrica is magic a hat and a rabbit, a sprinkle of fairy dust. I went to a writing workshop with Sherman Alexie one. “Kill ceremony!” That’s what he said. That and “Write anywhere.” That and “Stop making excuses.”
Mr. Alexie may not be warm and fuzzy, but he’s got a point. Art is not supposed to be about being comfortable–good art, meaningful, moving art–stirs and unsettles and changes, not only the viewer but the maker. You sound (and I and most other writers have sounded exactly the same at many points) like the zen novice who shows up expecting enlightenment to happen every day. The masters tell us that that enlightened feeling can happen randomly every now and then, but that the laboring to show up and pay attention day after day, year after year is its own reward.
IMO, asking if it’s magic is an excuse and . You are obviously meant to write because you suffer by not writing (I judge based on the fact that i’ve read multiple of your posts about this), so maybe it’s time to think in terms of pragmatics. The little questions instead of the big, flashy ones. i.e. What contexts help you to build the best container(s) for your writing? Do you need a class? A community? A sense of obligation? Personally, my writing suffers in isolation. I used to do what you’re doing (cut back my hours at work, set aside time) and wrote nothing that required an intensity of focus and continued attention. Instead I wrote blog entries and the occasional poem. Since then, I’ve found formal workshops to be helpful. (This only works if the other members are serious writers, not people who “have always wanted to write” or “used to write in college/high school” etc. and actually works best if I have no social ties to the writers–we have nothing in common other than the art. Queer social writing groups, in my experience, don’t provide enough challenge and a wide enough perspective to create big work.) Even better–for me–if there’s an attendance-based grade attached.
If you care about writing and really can’t get yourself to do it, I’d advise you to apply for an MFA prog. There are a bunch of fully funded ones if you are willing to trust your art, apply several years in a row and move anywhere (it’s only two years) and the MFA program is about the closest thing I have ever found, as a writer, to magic. (That and the feeling that comes after several hundred hours of work when holding the ten-times-revised story or essay and thinking, I fucking wrote this and it’s perfect. That is magic.) Lesson from a Jew: G-d wants you to work. (And maybe suffer too if it helps build character.)
Best of Luck,
p.s. I think a lot of queer/trans artists make the mistake of writing within a queer/trans vacuum. Problem being that politically-driven/-bonded communities/networks are morally, rather than artistically centered. The artist can be a moral person, but must be amoral (not immoral) as an artist. Speaking about truth requires plumbing not only the shadows of the world, but also our own and this is very difficult to do deeply within a “safe” zone.
The reason that there is no one answer to this question is because each of us has to answer it in our own way. It sounds like you’ve found your answer, and that’s awesome. Best of luck!
Back when I did math, I always asked basically that question: what do you do when you want to do math but you don’t feel like doing math? I did not learn the answer.
Nathaniel! It’s heartening to know that even mathematicians struggle with the problem of inspiration vs. productivity.
Also, this TED talk, which my friend AM pointed out to me- extremely helpful! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA
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