Wednesday, August 22, 2007

only mostly dead

“They say I got brains, but they ain’t doing me no good; I wish they could.”
     – BRIAN WILSON, ‘I Wasn’t Made For These Times’

“There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more.”
     – STEVEN PATRICK MORRISSEY, ‘You Handsome Devil’

When I was eighteen years old, I would have told you that writing was every bit as vital to my existence as breathing. Many days have passed between then and now – fifteen years’ worth of steady decline – until the same effort that once would yield a fully imagined story, if not two, now offers only a handful of stonewrung blood, a scant few overwrought sentences heavy with scratchouts and false starts, clotted with waste ink and knots of frustration, and lacking. Now I am thirty-three, and I am no longer a writer. But the memory of my youthful passion and resolve, of that deep faith I once held in my own abilities, is extraordinarily vivid, and sometimes so tangible that I almost believe it could still be hiding inside me somewhere, crouched in the dark and waiting.

* * * * * * * * *

My wife has a habit of saying that she “can’t find” a thing when she has not yet actually looked for it. This rarely fails to make me laugh and has become sort of a running gag between the two of us. A typical exchange goes something like this:

“I can’t find my keys,” she’ll say.

“Well, have you looked for them?” I counter.

To which she’ll respond, always mock-offended, “Well, no,” or, “A little,” or sometimes, “You see me looking, don’t you?”

Then I’ll say, “Why don’t you try…,” and offer up my best guess as to the whereabouts of the Item In Question. She then either goes to check this new possibility or puts on her best exasperated adolescent and says:

“I looked there already. Of course.”

“But did you look look,” I’ll say, “or did you just stand there and stare at the desktop without touching or moving anything?”

Then she’ll put one hand on her hip and sigh heavily and ape further pouty, bottom lip stuck out, and by that point we both usually crack up laughing.

The more I think about this, the more mine seems like nervous laughter.

* * * * * * * * *

Over the years I have found no end of things to blame for my gradual silence, but always I was able to at least feign denial by continuing to write intermittently, however insignificant the results. Then, a little more than three years ago, my son got sick. In addition to the obvious emotional pressure of having a critically ill child, the ordeal also put an enormous strain on our meager family finances. I took as much time off as I felt I could get away with, but it was only perhaps ten days after his initial diagnosis that I was forced to return to work while my wife stayed alone by his side.

The hospital where he received all of his care is about 50 miles away from our house, a commute which made it impossible for me to visit every day. This left me with far too much time on my hands to sit and think unhappy thoughts. One would imagine that this would have been a perfect opportunity to sit down with pen & paper and begin to try working out some of the things I was going through, and I did attempt this on an almost daily basis. But nothing was working. I couldn’t seem to get anything out except a rambling, senseless sort of late night pontification, generally calling into question most everything that had come before in the wake of this profound life-changing event.

And whether it’s always like that when faced with such circumstances, I don’t know. I still have a hard time putting it into perspective. I always thought I had endured life-changing events before – lots of moves, break-ups; a messy divorce; myriad career changes; childbirth; et cetera – but nothing close to this. Nothing anywhere close to this.

At any rate, there I was, still considering myself a writer, in the midst of what should have been the most tragically inspiring events of my life, and I could scarcely turn out a coherent sentence. I made attempts, as I said, not all of which were completely awful, but I was reaching beyond my abilities to express myself, and I could feel it. It felt like pretending, and that disgusted me. As far as I was concerned, the subject matter was sacred, yet instead of rising to the occasion, I found that I’d been rendered virtually mute. One day I reached the point at which I couldn’t go on simply playing at it any more, and just like that, I allowed myself to give up. It wasn’t that I suddenly lost all desire to write, but more that I could finally let go of the idea that I had anything truly worthwhile to say.

And here I am. Largely fruitless, as ever. But feeling, for the first time in a long time, unwilling to quit just yet.