Saturday, November 2, 2013

Not Not-Writing

Last month, I stood in front of thirty high school English teachers at a restaurant in Bozeman, Montana, ready to deliver my prepared talk, "How to Tell a War Story."

Before I began, I held up my cell phone.  "You'll excuse me if I check my email one last time before I begin," I said.  "I'm waiting to hear whether or not the government shutdown is officially over."

I, along with the rest of the country, was holding my breath, shifting uncomfortably on a bed of pins and needles, as the inane, insane, and utterly needless staredown contest in Washington, DC wound to a close until one player finally, FINALLY blinked.  [Yes, as a Writer-With-a-Day-Job, I am also a government employee--the public affairs specialist for the Western Montana District of the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Department of the Interior); I, along with all the other employees in my district, save one (our law enforcement ranger), had been furloughed on October 1.  Good times, good times.]

By the time I'd finished talking to the English teachers, the deal had finally cleared Congress and was headed for President Obama's desk.  I was both relieved and a little melancholy.  I was happy to once again be getting a paycheck, but I was also ruing the days I'd spent during the past two weeks Not-Writing.

You'd think I would have spent all that "free time" putting pen to paper, productively working on all the writing projects clanging like fire alarms in my head: the novella, the short stories, the one-act play, even the epic revisions I should be doing to my second novel about the midget Hollywood stuntman.  But no.  Apart from a few false starts at sentences here and there, I spent my furlough Not-Writing.

Let me also briefly sermonize about the fact that the furlough was not a "vacation" for government employees as some tea drinkers have claimed.  Most of us spent the time pacing, wringing our hands, and watching headlines with all the anxiety of a Wall Street executive on October 29, 1929.  We wanted to go back to work.  We wanted to re-open the national parks, we wanted to return to our reports and spreadsheets at the IRS, we wanted to go back to inspecting food at the FDA.  Most of us love our jobs and are passionate about our service to the nation.  The other thing to remember is that the workload did not go away.  While we were at home, projects and requests and emails still flowed in to our empty, idle desks.  This wasn't a vacation, it was merely pressing the pause button and now we must spend considerable time and energy trying to catch up.

Job stress aside, I should have been more productive during those first weeks in October.  I had such high hopes, but I only ended up disappointing myself.  I'd be lying if I said that as I watched the evening news on September 30, with the clock ticking down to the fiscal year deadline, I wasn't already forming plans to get a lot of writing done during the shutdown.  We writers always envision these gifts of long stretches of time spread before us like a Hawaiian luau buffet.  Shipwrecks on deserted islands (with a typewriter and reams of paper), prison sentences, even stay-at-home recoveries from broken arms--these are our fantasies which we decorate with ambition and determination.

I am, however, the worst--the absolute WORST--at self-discipline.  I cave so easily to distraction and surrender with a white flag before idle temptations have even fired their first shot.  I don't seize the day; there is no carpe in my diem.

And so, I spent my available writing time in early October not writing.  I didn't do nothing, of course.  In all other regards, I was productive.  I helped my wife organize her vintage furniture shop, I read books, I fixed our home theater system in the basement, I picked up sticks and leaves from our front yard, I attended a couple of book festivals, I gave a couple of interviews to blogs and C-SPAN's Book-TV.  I kept busy to the point of distraction...and a thin layer of dust built up on my laptop's keyboard.

In her brilliant, beautiful new book Still Writing, Dani Shapiro urges me to block out interferences like the Internet, email, laundry, baking, sorting files, filling out insurance claims, or whatever pulls me away from the writing task at hand:
Sit down.  Stay there.  It's hard--I know just how hard--and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn't get easier.  Ever.  Get used to the discomfort.  Make some kind of peace with it....When I sit down to meditate, I feel much the same way I do when I sit down to write: resistant, fidgety, anxious, eager, cranky, despairing, hopeful, my mind jammed so full of ideas, my heart so full of feelings that it seems impossible to contain them.  And yet...if I do just sit there without checking the clock, without answering the ringing phone, without jumping up to make a note of an all-important task, then slowly the random thoughts pinging around my mind begin to settle.  If I allow myself, I begin to see more clearly what's going on.  Like a snow globe, that flurry of white floats down.
I love Dani's book and for the past two months, I've been using it as a motivator, a propellant to push me to my desk and get my ass in the chair.  I begin each morning by cracking open Still Writing like it was my scripture reading from Our Daily Bread.  But for all of Dani's wisdom and gut-honest accounts of her own writing life, I still felt myself go limp with inertia those early weeks in October, while at the same time self-distractions raged like a blizzard in my snow-globe head.

Let me just check my email real quick before I start writing.  I swear it won't take me more than ten minutes.

I think the dishwasher needs to be emptied.

Wouldn't it be fun to play a video game with my wife right now?

Here's the thing: the more I don't write, the more I don't write.  The longer I go without pulling fresh words from my head and putting them on the page, the more I wallow in self-pity and depression.  It's a vicious, perfect cycle.  Not-Writing begets Not-Writing.

Until finally, one day, things get so bad that I hit a wall of self-loathing and try to pole-vault over this wall to whatever waits on the other side.  Which, hopefully, is Writing.

I do all sorts of self-motivation exercises.  I read Dani Shapiro's inspirational Still Writing.  I write a poem about the trees outside my office window.  I Tweet things like "When I punch myself for not-writing, I remember @JoyceCarolOates is somewhere writing her 3rd short story of the day & I'm refueled w/ fire."  Whatever it takes to convince myself that I'll never "find the time to write."  Instead, I must make the time to write.

Ironically, now that I'm back to work at the government job, I'm once again rising at 3:30 a.m. and getting some writing done.  Maybe I need that squeeze of deadline, that ever-narrowing window of time in order to get motivated.  Whatever it takes, I suppose.

Here's a shot of my home-office desk--my second-story lair where I do my early-morning writing.  This was taken two days after I went back to work:

Notice the copy of Still Writing which is close at hand
That Moleskine notebook contains the first draft of what I've tentatively called "FOB Sorrow."  These past few days, I've made some nice progress on that novella about soldiers hiking on foot from one end of Baghdad to the other in order to attend their sergeant's memorial service:
      We keep walking—through the dust, through the thirst, through the rising heat, and now, through the growing crowd of Iraqis who are starting to fill the marketplace with their goats, their dishdashas, their cooking smoke.
      We are hungry.
      None of us had time to grab chow this morning before we stole the Humvee and none of us thought to grab an MRE from the back seat after it broke down barely two miles outside the Entry Control Point.  And now our stomachs think our throats have been cut.
      We round a corner and push forward into the marketplace.  Skinned goats hang on ropes.  Pyramids of pomegranates, figs, neon-yellow mangoes.  Two men crouch over a grated fire, turning puddle-shaped slabs of naan with their bare hands.  We can smell the sweet yeast and it drives us crazy.
It's raw and far from perfect, but at least it's something.  Just re-entering that room inside my head and saying "hello" to all the words waiting for me there, does me a world of good.  I'm rejuvenated, invigorated, shot full of determination.  In fact, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to my soldiers in that Baghdad neighborhood.  I have words to pull from my head.  My hands are on the pole vault.

A version of this essay first appeared at Book Pregnant.


  1. Thank you for sharing your not writing experience (and how you've orchestrated a return to it). I have had a terrible time getting words to paper since this past May and am just now every so slowly finding a way back to pen and paper. Still Writing sounds wonderful and will soon make a trip from our nearest bookstore to my hands. Your tweet on Joyce Carol Oates (I'm a big fan) made me smile and I'm glad you're pleased to be off furlough and back to your established routine!

  2. Thank you ever so very much for this post. Thank you. It shut up my inner critic for a bit. I can't stop feeling gratitude. And a little shame: I have the same computer as you but my writing space is a mess. Yours is what I dream of someday having. Good luck to you and I'm glad you're back to work.