The Process Involves Love

Kinds of love (after Gon Ben Ari):

The love of the sound of language.
The love of the shapes formed by one’s tongue in creating the sounds of language.
The love of English.
The love of one’s toes when they are freshly painted in a new color.
The love of discovering new words. This week: philtrum.
The love of one’s philtrum—which is to say, the cleft that runs between the nose and the upper lip.
The love of the small scar on one’s husband’s face, just to the left of his philtrum.
The love of one’s small dog for oneself, as expressed through nuanced positioning of the ears.
The love of reading one’s dog’s thoughts via the positioning of the ears.
The love of how weird it is that the dog has never actually spoken.
The love of articulating previously nebulous ideas.
The love of discovering terms for previously nebulous ideas. This week: patriarchal bargaining.
The love of one’s protagonist, despite her extensive reliance on patriarchal bargaining—which is to say, maneuvering within patriarchal systems to secure power or safety rather than fighting or disrupting the systems.
The love of one’s mother.
The love of French.
The love of Spanish.
The love of something Gon Ben Ari once said about how in English, the sentences in the Bible only mean one thing, while the same sentences in Hebrew mean many things.
The love of quotes half remembered, due to one’s terribly imperfect powers of recall.
The love of influence.
The love of jotting things down in compensation for terribly imperfect powers of recall.
The love of the inside of one’s own head, despite challenges such as: inner chaos.
The love of the patterns of black on white formed by words on a page.
The love of a room in which the only sound is the clicking of keys on a laptop.
The love of silence.
The love of knowing that one has rendered some things, sometimes, somewhat coherent.

The Process Involves Other People’s Eyes

As a writing student I learned the maxim, “Know your audience.” I understand its logic but even now, a decade into my career as a writer, I’m still vaguely baffled about what to do with it. I still think, as I did at first, “How am I supposed to know who my audience is?” It seems to me that my audience is a subset of the reading public who self-selects in response to my writing. I can’t know my “audience” in advance. I have to write what I write and then let them find me, let them get to know who I am as a writer and decide for themselves whether they want to comprise my audience.

And then there is the troubling role the “audience” plays in my mind as I am composing a piece. On one hand, I always have the reader’s needs in mind and I’m endlessly tweaking and adjusting and revising my prose so that it will be clearer and more fluid and even more beautiful, for the reader’s sake and esteem. But on the other hand, if I were to imagine my reader too precisely and if I were to keep her desires and opinions and feelings and needs in mind too closely, I’d be crippled. So I spend a lot of time ignoring the reader, pretending she isn’t really out there, even actively closing my eyes to evidence of her attention. I spend a lot of time listening only to the voices deep in my head, trusting in them alone.

Yet I can’t ignore that others’ perceptions are necessary for the writing itself. That the voices in my head are often the voices of my sister or my best friend or my husband or my stepson, working away at me, becoming part of me and part of the tales I tell. I remember a friend’s story about a sculpture she once saw. It was a large wooden pear with insect wings. A lovely thing, fairy-like—until you looked closely enough to see that the pear did not have wings but that they belonged to a bug emerging from a blackened gash in the fruit. It is good to remember to question everything I write, knowing there might be a rotting wound in some corner that I haven’t seen because I’m peering at it from the wrong angle.

It’s a tightrope walk, to write with the reader and without the reader. To care about the reader’s opinions but shield myself from her judgments. Particularly as a writer of memoir, that much maligned form. I think of Arcade Fire’s song “Reflector,” and the line about “a reflection of a reflection of a reflection,” which seems a riff on Baudrillard’s copy of a copy of a copy. In the video, which makes a potent comment on the shallowness of celebrity and mass culture, the band members wear oversized paper maché heads that are fashioned after the real face of each wearer. At one point they all kneel beside a lake and peer at their masks in the water, recalling Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image and, reaching for it, drowned. I wonder if I, gazing so fiercely into my own life, sometimes come close to falling in.

But I suspect that narcissism is in a way the opposite of what I do. The narcissistic isn’t toward exploration of one’s own identity so much as it is about masking a “vacuum of identity” (to borrow from Judith Thurman). Memoir involves much shielding but it is hollow and stupid without a thick stream of exposure, an acceptance of and willingness to reveal one’s own fragility. It is in the exposure that discovery happens, and so discovering becomes an act of survival. Writing becomes the work of fortifying an identity against forces that so often, by copying and reflecting and copying and reflecting, can obliterate identity.

And yet isn’t it odd, reader, that the piece of writing—no matter how vulnerable, confessional, or raw—inevitably becomes another mask?

The Process Involves Insomnia

My favorite time to write is in the middle of the night. Correct that: My favorite time to write memoir is in the middle of the night. Late, late at night, always between 2 and 5 a.m. It happens that I generally go to bed at about 11 p.m. and I seem to have a natural end of a sleep cycle three or four hours later, bringing me nearer to the surface from deep in my own unconscious. On nights when I’m upset or preoccupied with something—something I’m writing about, as often as not—I’ll often awaken so completely that, for an hour or two anyway, I feel as fresh as if I’d had a full night’s sleep. And my mind will have been emptied of all the clutter, all the noise, and nothing is moving in there except this one thing, this thought or this feeling that has compelled me from sleep.

In the stillness of the house, as I open my eyes to the blackness, I feel a small thrill. For reasons I can’t begin to explain, I feel good when I wake up at this hour of night. Calm and composed. This hour is mine alone. Not even my dog stirs when I peel back the covers and snatch my laptop before slipping out of the bedroom. Some nights I fix a cup of tea or a bowl of ice cream, maybe watch part of a movie. Others, I go out onto the patio and lie wrapped in a blanket on the chaise, staring at the stars and the way moonlight illuminates the hillside behind my house. If the sentences start coming, I go into the living room. Sitting lengthwise on the couch, my feet up, all lights off and my screen light turned to its lowest register, I get to work.

I have read that creativity involves, among other things, an overactive “default network” in the brain. That is to say, the web of neurons connecting various smaller networks across the brain, allowing local regions to communicate with one another and connect disparate thoughts and feelings. The default network is turned on when a person is daydreaming or otherwise unengaged, and tends to be more easily accessed by creative people than by others. I’ll be the first to announce that my default network is overactive. But the lack of activities requiring focus, the permission to ignore other necessary tasks—I think this is why the late nights are so luscious to me. I actually can’t go sit at my desk: it’s in the bedroom where my husband and I sleep. I can’t make phone calls, can’t go to the coffee shop either. And intensive intellectual work feels too cold for such dark hours. Anyway I’m too out of it for critical thinking. Lyricism is the only thing that feels possible. So I am without interruption and without judgment, even my own.

I write until I get it all out, until I grow tired again. Often I curl up on the couch and crash until the predawn light reminds me to go back to bed. Then I creep back in, momentarily wondering if my husband noticed my absence before returning to the kind of peace that can only be found in sleep.

The Process Involves Ghosts

I have conjured my brother. He is a composite, inhabiting the uncountable hours I spent in youth feeling his presence at the other end of the couch while we read or watched TV or played video games or just hung out and tormented the cat. Here is my father’s living room in fine detail—the cool tacky softness of the leather sofa, the warmth of the camouflage nylon Army-issue sleeping-bag liner that we have always used as a throw blanket. He sits there, a compact masculine frame with thick reddish hair, holding a bowl. I know without looking that it contains one of two things: cereal with milk poured over it, or ice cream with milk poured over it. His favorites. He commiserates with me, is jovial—except when my feet twitch involuntarily, which they tend to do when I read or watch something intense on TV. Unable to hold in my emotions, I release them accidentally through my toes, which are tucked behind my brother’s thick leg. Annoyed, he tells me I have to stop or move my feet.

But this is too much. I see him, feel him too clearly here beside me on my own leather couch. Almost as in a dream, as if I have walked into the room just to the left of myself and I’m looking at both of us there together on the couch. He doesn’t move; he’s made of past moments. But he is as crisp as if viewed through binoculars, clearer than as with the naked eye—almost somehow more real in my memory than he was in life,. I feel a jolt, a stab of pain. I should take solace in knowing that death can’t own him so long as I still have the power to remember. But I don’t.

I can say that the process involves accepting the limits of the process. That some things, some losses, aren’t ever going to be made okay—not by remembering, not by writing, not by the sound in my head of some words that Paul Simon once sang: “Sometimes even music,” he crooned, “cannot substitute for tears.”

The Process Involves Escape

Monday night yoga leaves me feeling so good that I rarely want to go home afterward—back to my house of anxiety and wormholes, to the confused pressure that has become as familiar to me as air. The pressure to write, to order the chaos inside my mind.

Downtown Tucson is mellow on Mondays, so when I walk the three blocks from Tucson Yoga to the restaurant I always retreat to—Diablo Burger—I know it won’t be full. It’s a hip place but basic, serving organic Arizona beef and decorated on one wall with a vintage Vespa. The waitresses know me by sight and most of them have only ever seen me alone. I come without my husband, maybe with a New Yorker or a notebook but just as often with neither, and for 45 minutes I sit around generally acting eccentric. Or anyway, feeling myself to be acting eccentric despite knowing self-consciously that I’m so low-key that no one notices me. I root vigorously for the Suns playing basketball on the lone silent television. I close my eyes and lip sync along to “Mrs. Robinson” as it streams from the sound system, wagging my head in time with the beat.

I watch the conversation of a young couple a few tables away, unable to hear them but able to read in their body language that they don’t know each other very well. They are flirting, connecting. The attraction is mutual. Their words are touching on serious topics, personal things. When the waitress comes I compliment her on her ancient “The Empire Strikes Back” t-shirt, a paper-thin specimen from which she has cut off the sleeves. I adore the waitresses, young women all, avatars of a self I once was, more beautiful than I ever could imagine myself to be. Life is beautiful. Then I go home and I want to write.

The Process Involves Yoga

Possessing a disorganized mind, I do what I must to keep my life in order, labeling files and jotting down lists as I go through my day. But ordering my free time would feel like sheer nonsense. I’m simply not capable of doing it. Blissfully, Monday night yoga releases me from that responsibility. Once a week, someone else leads and all I have to do is follow along.

I attend only “Beginner” classes, although I’ve been practicing yoga for at least 15 years and could do all the poses relatively easily from the beginning. I am naturally flexible, and as a teenager I was a competitive gymnast. The familiarity with my own limbs that sport gave me has stayed with me all my life. In my twenties, before I became a writer, I generally attended challenging Vinyasa Flow classes, the kind that keep you moving the entire time and offer an intense workout. But that has changed.

When I write, working on a personal essay or my book, which is a memoir of my mother’s mental illness and the ways it shaped our family, I work with difficult memories. And when I draw them up these memories invade my tissues. They climb into my muscle fibers, hunker down in my joints, tug on the fascia. I get knots in my shoulder blades, headaches, spots that pinch in my wrists when, as a massage therapist explained to me, the sheath around the nerve that runs down each arm tightens and pulls. Showing up at yoga in this condition, it is the stretching that matters above all else. I live for poses that open up the hips and shoulders, like that brilliant one called the Pigeon Pose, which pulls on the body’s largest muscle, the gluteus maximus, and leaves you almost gasping with the mix of intensity and relief that only grows the longer you stay in position. I get light-headed just thinking about it.

Sometimes, in the middle of a writing project and finding myself stalled, I’ll start relaxing into the yoga practice and suddenly discover that the breathing and stretching has released something in my mind, so that the sentences start rolling again, mid-pose. I’ll have to stop and tiptoe across the room to the cubbies, digging in my purse for my notebook and pen and then perching quietly on the bench by the door while I scribble out a thought to catch it before it slips away. I’ve learned that if I feel the urge to stop like this once, I’ll likely do it again in the same session, so when I creep back to my mat to rejoin the class I take my notebook with me and set it within reach. My teacher, bless her, professes not to mind.

The Process Involves Nesting

Contents of the writer’s “office,” which is actually one corner of the master-bedroom suite:

1) Non-writing Desk—retained from childhood, pine, recently refinished in “honey pine” and accented with ceramic knobs purchased from Anthropologie. Used solely as surface on which to place reading materials.

Items associated with non-writing desk:
Two stacks of about ten paper-back books each, to read
Stack of hard-bound books, already read, heavily tabbed
Two stacks of three-ring binders containing notes and drafts
Stack of spare folders beneath stack of printer paper
Guitar tuner (Shouldn’t be there, but where to put it?)

 

2) Writing Desk—purchased from Target, stained “mahogany,” made of unknown wood. Official site where writing supposedly takes place.

Items associated with writing desk:
Padded leather dining chair
Two-drawer metal file cabinet
Laser-jet printer
Laptop computer
Paper tray
Table lamp
Textbook of Schizophrenia
Framed photo of self and husband
Unframed photo of younger sister and brother, aged five and four
Corduroy pencil box containing: ballpoint pens, rollerball pens, highlighter pens

 

3) Free-standing half-section of long sofa—midcentury-modern style in black pleather, purchased with other half at an estate sale. Unofficial site where writing most often actually takes place.

Items associated with sofa:
Down comforter
Large pillow
Antique portable TV stand
Floor lamp (very flimsy; must be careful not to bump)
Power strip joining cords for laptop, printer, lamps, phone charger

 

4) Framed black-and-white art photograph—hanging on wall, titled “She Knew the Game Was Fixed But Played On Anyway.”

The image is a self-portrait of the photographer, Lauren Simonutti, who struggled with schizophrenia for many years and spoke and wrote eloquently about her experiences. She committed suicide in 2012. The writer seeks both inspiration and moral support from this portrait and feels at once pain and joy when she glances at it, as it reminds her that she is uncertain about all things, including her own future and the future of her book. The writer feels that these feelings are appropriate, and should be part of the process.