(ED’S NOTE: Originally posted on my Tumblr.)
I had lunch yesterday with a friend I hadn’t seen in 10 years, and that should have been sweet enough, but she had to go and make the afternoon positively jubilant by presenting me with a framed printout of my flash-fiction piece that was selected for Doorknobs & Bodypaint’s issue 58. She was probably one of three people (five, maybe?) who have read it. Her heartfelt celebration of my tiny, impulsive achievement left me overwhelmed and lost for words. It is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received or ever will receive.
As we dined on naan and kadhai, she asked me what my next piece is about, and I had to admit that I don’t know. This summer is mostly about maintaining a writing habit, which I began reviving in January. I’ve been writing since I was 8, but over the past five, six years, I had gotten away from the daily jottings that I call “my pages.” Until very recently, my most notable works have been my daily and weekly to-do lists, which are crucial in maintaining my focus. I realized in February that my “list books” look a lot like journals I would have chosen: spiral-bound, colorful, likely to sport some sort of flower. This made me sad. How had my life-long love affair with the written word been suddenly edited down to laundry lists?
Instead of crying about it, I signed up for another workshop, finished the current journal (writing REALLY BIG!) and bought a new one. Soon after, I was writing piece after piece; small assignments grew into larger projects. I wrote and I wrote, and then I wrote some more. It made for a good but sometimes frustrating spring.
After the class ended, I turned my attention to my neglected garden, my substandard running, and our not-quite-filthy house. Perhaps I believed I had written enough. Perhaps I believed I had wasted time while doing all that writing. Whatever thoughts I had about writing were set aside for now. I had very adult lists to consult.
A couple of weeks ago, my list suggested I properly store the luggage I had carelessly tossed into the basement storage room after our trip to San Francisco had disintegrated. May was a shit month, and June wasn’t shaping up to be any better. It was one damn thing after another, and my stress levels were spiking – despite running. I needed to feel better, so I set about organizing. (“Likes” go with “likes.” Toss, toss, toss!)
I can spend many happy hours organizing. Give me tabbed folders, a filing cabinet, a paper shredder, and three hours, and I won’t ask you for anything for Christmas. On this particular day, I had some Samsonite, two forgotten boxes of vinyl LPs, Rubbermaid cases of collegiate odds-and-ends, and a collection of random pieces of wood that I’m sure are important to the structure of our house, but I’m not sure how. The five-minute tidy turned into a five-hour flurry of packing, unpacking, sorting, trashing, and cursing. Did I really need that notebook from Shakespeare and Film? What about those notes from Women and Theatre? And how far did that class get me? Handouts for Media Literacy? (The jokes just write themselves.) Without any burden of nostalgia, I made great effort to destroy the evidence that proved my parents had wasted their hard-earned money on a so-called higher education for me.
Ignoring the repeated paper cuts, I dug through my boxes of papers, folders, notebooks and more notebooks. After the second or third box, I unearthed a collection of planners – spiral-bound, don’ cha know – from nearly 20 years ago. Flipping through them, I found that I have always made lists. I don’t know why, but I had come to believe that my lists were an adult thing, cultivated in my 30s as a way to manage my ever-shortening attention span. I discovered on this June day that I have always written down tasks, appointments, names, numbers. Wedged between homework assignments (“Quiz – French – Ch. 4”) were even occasional insights (“Holly’s such a bitch!”) and the starts of bad poetry (“Wandering druid of my heart, knock now on my green door with your big wooden cane …”).
Page after page, I listed, noted, and jotted. And these weren’t the journals I’ve kept since I was 8. These were just planners – wire-bound calendars – all filled with comings, goings; people, places; who I knew, what I thought. These pages were a record of a younger me, a North Carolina college town, and the 1990s, and more evidence of my parents’ well-meaning but poor investment.
The pages were also proof of a writer’s life. The scrawls and scribbles, every word was mine. From the planners, I moved on to the letters, a daunting collection of missives received – and unsent – decorated with names like April, Kim, Dawn, Kristi, Autumn. These, too, were records, small histories, and fine examples of the artistry of the handwritten letter. (“You’ll probably get this four days from now (Payday!) because I have NO money for stamps and my evil-ass parents won’t lend me any!” and “We’re going to see 10,000 Maniacs in June at Walnut!!! Wanna come?”) It was astonishing to read how much life my friends and I had captured in the days before e-mail. I shouldn’t have been too surprised, though: Most of my friends are writers. Not famous, not published, but writers nonetheless.
It has only been very recently that I’ve learned you don’t have to be published to be a writer. I read truly terrible pieces of published work all the time and would never consider the authors to be writers. (Though they would probably disagree.) It was on this June day, as I read, sorted, tossed, and cursed, that I realized that I had spent the past 30-plus years as a writer. Writing is what I did. It’s what I do. But to what end, I’m not sure. I don’t want to write a novel, and I don’t want to be a journalist. Hell, I’m not even dedicated to microblogging. So I can’t tell you what I’ll write; I can only tell you that I will write.
In all the writing I’ve done over the past six months, I’ve found a number of parallels between my writing and my running, the most significant being that if I think if I think too much about either, I won’t do anything at all. Right now I think the key to writing – for me – is to see what I turn out. And it’s entirely possible that, in the end, my most notable work will be a series of colorful, spiral-bound notebooks filled with meticulous lists that detail the life and distractions of an unpublished writer in 21st-century Northern Virginia. And I think I might be fine with that.