Lately, I’ve been restless. Swamped with this need to be doing something.
A fellow Midwesterner and writer friend would say that this is our region’s neurosis showing itself—that Old Church need to account for every second of your day and turn aside the implied guilt of idleness. I don’t think she’s wrong. Every time my dad calls, he asks me what I’m doing. When I say, “Nothing,” he says, “Why the heck not?”
In eight months I wrote a book, revised, revised, revised, wrote queries, got rejections, wrote better queries and mediocre synopses, got rejections, wrote stellar queries and improved synopses. Now I’m waiting. None of the stories, books, or ideas that I’ve played with in the meantime have really felt like something I could work on in that frantic, obsessive way that comes with a project you know you are going to finish. I haven’t really worked on anything in a month and that thing inside of me that swears not moving forward is the same as sliding backward keeps asking me, “Why the heck not?”
I understand the importance of time. When I lay my boys down for a nap, I know I have one hour or less to focus entirely on writing. That’s why I spend most of the rest of my day only half-here. My mind writes while I wash the dishes, works over sentences while I sing with the boys, figures out wording while I change diapers, all so I’ll be ready. Put the boys down, get to a computer, type until your keys smoke and your brain hurts. There’s never going to be enough time to get everything done that you wanted to, but go, go, go until the clock runs out. Maybe that’s why when I hit a dead period, all that forward inertia rolls right over me.
“Go, go, go,” my brain screams.
“Where?” I wonder.
This feeling isn’t unfamiliar.* When I finish working on a story, I usually have a night of uninterrupted sleep and a day of victory. The boys and Josh and I play, go for walks, talk, listen to music, watch shows, read books, live life completely in the present tense. My mind stays with me instead of wandering off to write so that moment when everyone is asleep and I can get to a computer is not wasted. For a little while after I finish working on something, I enjoy the relaxation that comes with being directionless.
But that sort of floating can only last for so long. I have another writing friend who insists that there are “inherent problems” with the present tense. In my case, I think he’s right.** Living in the present tense means facing summer when it’s summer and winter when it’s winter. Staying in for supper when there’s no money to go out. Not having shoot-outs or crazy sex or turning into a crow and flying away. To live in the present tense means to live in the real world and the real world, to me, is not that appealing.
Or, this need to accomplish something can be looked at from a spiritual standpoint. We were listening to a Mountain Goat’s song
once when Josh asked me, “Why does everyone think it’s so hard to live?” My answer was that if you really think about your purpose in life, what you are supposed to be doing compared to what you’ve actually been doing, it’s hard to go on living with yourself. “I know it is for me,” I said, not meaning to needlessly worry Josh about suicide. If you do think about it, though, God gives us each a purpose and a certain amount of time. From there it’s up to us. Any failure is on our shoulders and any wasted time is our fault.
Feeling bummed out yet? Josh would say that’s a really depressing way to look at things and I guess I can see his point, but for me it’s the opposite. If I have a purpose, I know I’ll find my way back to it. Another story will come along and I’ll work on it in a dead sprint and lay awake for hours in bed trying to get a paragraph just right so that I can type it tomorrow. Time keeps moving forward, whether you use it or waste it, and that’s comforting to me. Besides, if I get really desperate, I can always write a blog post.
*I’ll take a moment here to preemptive strike back at the accusations that I’m committing a capital offense by writing that something is “not unfamiliar.” This is not the same thing as saying “irregardless.” I recognize this sensation and that I’ve had it before, but I honestly don’t have it often enough to call it a familiar feeling. It’s not unfamiliar, though, either.
**But to be clear: In writing’s case, I think anything is possible if it’s done right and I will never, ever change my mind about that.