On Not Writing
Sitting at the kitchen counter, listening to Wha’dya Know on a lazy Saturday morning. A month has gone by quickly since my last post here, and I’ve been contemplating what has stopped me from writing recently. I know other writers who participate in National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo—every November, but, for me, November is the month when I finally accept that summer is over and our briefly glorious fall has passed. A slump month, though this one has been eventful, so far.
Today the sky is flat gray with clouds that stretch down to the Alaska Range, a pale outline, a faintly jagged edge above a slatey line of foothills. There are chores to do—raking manure, grooming and longing horses, but I’m here with the laptop, drinking coffee, writing at last.
Two Sundays ago, I was washing dishes when a glass, which probably had a hairline fracture that I didn’t notice, broke out a semicircle at the rim, and, when I reached into the dishwater to pick up the glass beside it, sliced open the back of my thumb. I’ve learned about the emergency services in town, some advances in skin care (such as the pork rind-type substance that sealed the wound and started the healing process), and the power of luck.
Last Saturday, for my birthday, we went to Mark Taylor’s house where he gave us a house concert on his new baby grand. We sat in his cabin in a room filled with music as the light faded through the birches behind him. He stopped from time to time to explain what he was playing or to start over, and he talked to us about why he had stopped playing in public and how playing for a small audience (there were four of us) suited the purpose the music was written for. He dedicated one piece to our friend Joe Enzweiler.
After Joe’s memorial, a strangely cheery event in which friends from all phases of his life in Fairbanks recounted stories, read poems, and played music, I haven’t felt like writing. Perhaps it’s been that I’ve been busy. Every weekend has had some Saturday event and, when I can, I’ve been riding at Colleen’s indoor arena on Sundays—at least as long as it’s above 10 below. But not writing goes beyond grief or busy-ness. I’ve always had long periods of not writing, sometimes lasting up to a year, when the part of my brain that writes goes fallow. I have to admit that the world around me seems flatter then; I can look at the sky or the flutter of birds or Mattie trotting in the corral and these things are just what they are, not alive with words. I love to see these things, but something is different during these times.
This wordless time leads me to contemplate what prompts me to write in the first place. I think writers write for a variety of reasons: to explain ideas, to gain recognition, to record the life they know—but, for some, there is another reason, a compulsion, a need to frame experience in words, just as a painter frames experience in color and line or a musician in sound and tempo. In part, I’m reflecting on Joe’s life and poems, which I’ve been reading for over thirty years, and thinking of what drove him to write—the pressure of imagination in his life. For Joe’s poems always had a moment in them that took my breath away, lines like “the frozen blue you never lost, your halted clock tower eyes.” When I first met Joe in a writer’s workshop—we were both in our twenties—I would wonder where such turns of phrase came from, as if there were a thesaurus or a trick of mind that could lead me to such phrases of my own. I came to learn, as our writing friendship grew over the years, that Joe lived his life in multiple tracks—the concrete real world of cutting wood and carpentry and physics, and the invented world of possibilities that ran alongside it. The invented world, the imaginative transformation of the real world, compelled him, always.
I finally came to realize that my impulse to write was not exactly like Joe’s, that there is no template for writing, but that the desire to channel experience through words is something writers have in common. When I was a teenager, I believed that if I searched the language, I could find the exact words to translate any experience to the page. I remember watching a sunset, entranced by the red and orange and the deepening of dusk light, trying out words that could capture the moment in their sound and shape and order. Much later, I came to accept that words only suggest experience; they are charged with association, but can’t recreate the thing itself. But they open the writer and reader to the possibility of shared evocative experience.
So, not writing may be, in part, experience exhaustion—in part because the activity of real life uses up some of the energy that words take on in times of contemplation. Or it may be a gathering up of images for a time when they break loose on the page again. In any case, now there are words on this blog.