Like all writers, I have a life. That is, a life apart from writing. I know, it can be hard to believe that writers can find the time and resources to earn degrees, land jobs, fall in love, marry, buy houses, produce children, pay taxes, unclog drains, and weed the garden.
That our lives, on the outside, can appear so boringly, or brightly, normal to the casual viewer.
More often than I’d have liked, I have viewed the demands of my non-writing life as, if not downright hostile to my work as a writer, then, certainly, as pesky inconveniences that render writing considerably harder to get to.
With one exception, a big one: my kids.
Naturally they were, putting it mildly, a good deal of work. But from the first moment of their arrivals, they provided me with endless inspiration, ideas, and fodder for writing. Not to mention, demanding–through their very natures and innate needs–that I grow up, and become the person I was meant to be.
Big gifts in exchange for the challenges of rearing children!
One might think that the myriad ways in which adults learn from caring for children would, eventually, run dry.
Well, apparently they do not. And today I was reminded of this.
Minutes apart, I received two text messages, one from L, one from N. In the interest of writerly detail, I share the texts in their entirety (names and locales have been changed to protect the…whatever).
Love you!! We’re going to get on the road now to head to A—. With a C– elder named Brad–our new friend who is going to show us around C— and host us in A—. Sending big hugs. (star-star-star) It’s me, D, and M who are together traveling with Brad. (smiley face)
Hey, just got out of the wilderness. All went well! I’ll try and call soon to check in.
Now one can have fun with these and try to guess the genders of those writing, and where these young people are, and what they might be up to.
But that’s not how I reacted to these text messages. I reacted, as I rushed about the house trying to finish dressing, pay the bills, and complete various tasks while responding to the two messages, this way:
First, I wondered if L’s new friend might know my uncle who once worked in his area (turns out he did).
Then, I found myself muttering aloud:
When and where on the green earth will my children settle down? Enough with the running around!
Who is this fellow accompanying L to A—? And how did going to C— come into the picture? Who’s driving anyway? Does she or he know how to handle those hairpin turns, the same turns that made L’s father, some years ago, turn the steering wheel over to me?
And, yes, it’s good that N is now back on the grid, but must he keep wandering off of it? I’m not getting any younger! His grandmother isn’t getting any younger. How many grizzly bears did he encounter this time?!
Then I had to stop. Who was I kidding?
When did I settle down? And why is it somehow bad to be on the move?
I “ran around” for some time, sampling various places, relationships, types of work, and am none the worse for it. Indeed, I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not.
And not everything I did was safe or wise. Far from it. I am convinced now that I kept several guardian angels very busy for some time.
This isn’t unique to me. I’m part of the boomer generation. We were, for the most part, when younger, all over the place and for many, not for a short time. And plenty of us, settled in earlier years, came unsettled as the years passed, and new issues, needs, and desires arose.
Then I wondered, perhaps this is good for writing.
This acceptance that the young seem to possess of being unsettled, of taking risks, of responding to what is in front of one. Of not insisting that things proceed according to plan, of not resisting twists in the road, hairpin turns, and flooded out bridges.
To playing it as it lays, as writer Joan Didion once urged.
Writing is art, and is more like play than work. This doesn’t mean that artists do not work hard; those that I know work ferociously. Or that it’s easy to produce good art. But art, like play, requires that we remain fluid and responsive, and that we allow ourselves and our work to change and evolve.
As I’ve gotten older, it’s become clear to me that success in life is proportionate to our ability to navigate change.
Is success in writing also a function of the ability to navigate change? Change in response to what the writing demands, the manuscript appears to ask for and need, in what is being suggested by plot and character and theme?
My writing grows stale when I cling to an imposed sense of what the story, and any of its elements, “is about”. When I cease to respond to the suggestions the manuscript itself sends. When I attempt to pressure, cajole, and wheedle the story into going a certain way. Or being a particular thing.
Writing requires adjustment, repeated shifts that can lead to changes in any aspect of the piece, to character, plot, setting, word choice, imagery, point of view, tempo and rhythm, and so on.
Children, adult or not, seem to live mostly in the external world. Their instincts push them outward, into distant places, foreign cultures, and new people. As we gain experience our instincts often shift to a more inward focus. Certainly good writing demands that we move inward; that we plunge into the interior, follow the river to its headwaters, bushwhack through lush growth, moving into new realms.
Our journey might be solely on the page but, make no mistake, it is a journey.
If we are to complete it with skill, conviction, and grace we must keep moving, alert to new conditions and obstacles, navigating detours, avoiding dead ends, and pinpointing new routes as best we can.