My brain has been weary these past few days. The act of writing makes me feel safe and secure and comfortable in the world. But there are times when I need a break. I have just finished a severe revision on parts one and two of my book, and I made so much progress on it, but I have more to write, just a little bit more, and more to edit, and more to consider, and there was just one morning when I woke up and my brain said, Enough for now.
I was in bed, the dog at my feet. The train was hooting a few blocks away. Blocking morning traffic. I picked up the pen anyway, a habit, a reflex, the gesture soothes me nearly always, the picking up of the pen. If I can just put a little down on the page, I will have done something for the day. I may not make progress, but I will have worked, and there is no progress without motion.
As I wrote, I went blank. I wrote straight through, without stopping in my notebook to contemplate the words. I cannot even express to you an emotion or a sensation that occurred. There was the pen and the page and my hand and nothing else. If there were feelings at all, they were being held elsewhere. In a special compartment. When I looked up, perhaps five or ten minutes had passed, in this blank state. Blank, but of course, the pages were full. I did not focus on the words though. I was hesitant to read what I had written. Not afraid, because I trust myself to write from a peaceful place at this moment in my life. The words have kept me company this year when nothing else has.
But I didn’t want to know, or perhaps I wanted to save it for another time, when I needed a pick-me-up. I had written some sort of command or letter to myself, I had started to feel, and I thought I would need it later, when things were down or hard or too quiet in my mind. I started to think of it as a letter to a future version of myself. How often do I get the chance like this, to write so blindly? A little gift I had left myself.
I do this when people write me letters, too. Or send me cards or little notes. I never open them right away. Sometimes they sit for weeks or months on my front table, catching the sunlight in the afternoon. Just knowing they’re there gives me comfort. A greeting, a message of goodwill. Did I send enough of these this year? Maybe not. Did I treasure each one I got? Yes.
Don’t worry, I took some time off and sat in this park
Anyway, I finally read the pages. I see now that I was addressing two things. The first was the final scene in the book. In it, there is a specific object. I had written the entire book to get to it, had always known the book would end there, in that room, with that object. And yet, somehow, I hadn’t spent that much time considering it in the writing of the scene. In my notebook I had told myself, “Force your gaze toward the other object in the room…always force your gaze toward the other.”
This is one of the most constant challenges of writing a memoir. It’s an inherent struggle because we write from first person, unless we choose somehow to be experimental with the form. In fiction, I have no problem with the gaze, this is my sweet spot, understanding other people, these characters I invent. But I see now I have to force myself even more to this place of looking out. I take what I wrote to myself as something between a reminder and a warning call. Cut out the “I” a little more if I can, in this story of my life.
Because the story of life is not just you but everything and everyone around you.
The second thing I was addressing was looking at why I wrote this book. Not the why I started with but the why I ended with. I wrote, “I came out of something bad a few times over and found my way to something better.” Is it too simple an idea? But that is it, that is the story I am telling. Things were bad, then even worse, and then they got better. Is it the story of nearly every memoir? Probably. “I don’t want to forget this version of myself,” I wrote. “I feel at a distance, but it still feels fresh and close…I still feel this way all the time.” I am recording this part of my life right now because it feels urgent, and because it feels like the right time, and because even though it is the past, I am still living with it. I can return to this idea as I finish this new round of work on the book.
I wrote it because I had to — because I live with it every day.
I write all these letters to you to offer the smallest assistance in whatever you may be writing, but your quietest voice within you is your greatest guidance of all. Can you find that quiet in yourself soon? Can you steal that precious time for yourself somehow, somewhere before the end of the year? Write blindly, and without question. Tell yourself a secret. Tell yourself the truth.
See you next year.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). Last week I donated to 826 New Orleans.