Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dentists and Garbage and Writing: The Final Countdown

My time here is winding down. It is, in fact, ending a little sooner than expected, because a possible writing opportunity popped up back home and I'm hauling back to San Francisco two days early. Two days shouldn't make that much of a difference, but it's kind of a shock--I have what's left of today and Friday to finish my work here, clean up, pack, and motor back to the coast. It's now occurring to me that there are about a billion things I wanted to do still--eat a Hatch Chile Burger at Sparky's... Hold on. It's only like 45 minutes away. I can do that one right now! BRB.


Okay that was an experience. The burger was really good. The trip there and back was weird and I don't want to talk about it. Back to what I was saying...

The second half of my residency has not been as productive as the first, I'll admit. I took off for a few days to explore this corner of the world--White Sands National Monument, Marfa, Carlsbad Caverns, Gila Cliff Dwellings. Time well-spent, certainly. And I knew there would be good days and bad days. At times I felt like I just needed to get out of my own way, the writing was coming so easy I had to flee before it like a wave of water bursting through a dam. Those were really good days. There were days that were bad in the sense that the writing was difficult and painful (as it often is for me), but I felt really good afterwards because I had an essay, rough as it might be, to show for it. And then there were the shitty days where I accomplished pretty much nothing, despite staring at the screen for hours, starting and stopping and deleting and starting again and deleting that and then going to lay down on my face. Those days didn't feel so good.

I'm trying not to be too hard on myself about that. I now have five essays that are ready or almost ready to send out and shop around and two more that are complete but basically 12 miles of bad road. Most important of all--they are out of my head.

A few of these essays I wrote, they've been torturing me. For years. I knew I wanted to write them. I knew I had to write them. I thought about it constantly: while I was at work, when I was walking the dog, when I was out with friends, when I was at a movie. I felt guilty for doing anything that wasn't writing. Even going to the gym! I would in fact forego some of these activities on the pretense that I would stay in and write, but I could never get going. I wouldn't go hang out in coffee shops, or try new restaurants, or just go wander around in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I put all of these things aside to work. And instead I just sat at my desk and stared, and probably went on facebook forever, and then took a nap with my dog. I just couldn't do it. Why? Because I was scared.

Writing is hard. It's really, really, really hard. It's often slow-going and painful. I have found that there is a requisite amount of garbage I need to write before I get to the good stuff. Writing garbage sucks. It feels terrible. Already wracked with self-doubt, I think "Is this the best I can do? Oh my God, I'm terrible! Why did I think I could do this?!" and I imagine the authors I admire climbing through my window and beating me with their celebrated books. You ever been whacked with a copy of War and Peace? Well... technically I haven't, either, but I bet it hurts. The garbage in my brain is just like the garbage in your house--day by day, it builds up. So if I skip writing one day, I have twice as much garbage to get through before I find a sentence I can stomach. And on and on and on. Sometimes the bad, early drafts were so disheartening I couldn't even get through them. The longer I put off the writing, the more terrified I was to try and begin again. It was like gaining 100 lbs. after a few years as a semi-pro athlete and then trying to make a comeback. It was a huge task, and it was daunting, and I was just really, really scared.

That was the best thing about having an entire month to work. I had time to spread out. If I spent three hours writing total crap, well, I still had the entire rest of the day to do better. And if I didn't manage to do better that day, I had 29 more days ahead of me. So I did it. I dug in. It was still really awful and disgusting and demoralizing, but I managed to get through the landfill of garbage piled up in my brain and start writing things I didn't totally hate. Some of the stuff was actually pretty good, I think. I wrote the stories I'd been holding onto for years, and a couple that just popped up out of nowhere.

This was actually in a book
in my dentist's waiting room. WTF?!
And that? Feels AMAZING. It's kind of like when I finally went to the dentist after (okay, this is REALLY embarrassing) eleven years. I know. I KNOW. For a while I didn't go because I didn't have dental insurance. And then I got dental insurance and I paid for it year after year and didnI can't do this anymore! I have to call the dentist TOMORROW! But I wouldn't. Maybe my teeth were all rotten, but if I didn't call him, he wouldn't get to pull them out! Right? Right.
't go. I was scared that I would have cavities in each and every one of my teeth because I put it off for so long. Just like the garbage in my brain, the longer I waited, the scarier it became. Oh my God, I haven't been to the dentist in 5 years, I bet I have like 10 cavities. Oh my God, I haven't been to the dentist in 8 years, he is going to pull out all my teeth. Oh my God, I haven't been to the dentist in ELEVEN YEARS and I'm going to need dentures! It was always looming in the back of my mind. I wasn't even conscious of it. I just had this nagging feeling that there was something I needed to be doing. I'd sit bolt upright in bed at night and think
Anyway, I finally went. And guess what? MY TEETH WERE PERFECT. I was so scared for nothing. And now that I've gone, this heavy yolk I didn't even know I was carrying has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't have this little niggling voice in the back of my head at all times.

It seems to be the same with these essays. I feel freed, really. I can work on the comedy script my friend and I have been talking about for 2 years (I kept saying I couldn't do it because I needed to focus on [not] writing my own projects). I can write about ANYTHING I WANT. I can keep moving forward and away from the painful things I felt I needed to write about. I was afraid that if I let those wounds heal I wouldn't be able to access the feelings from that time in my life, and my writing wouldn't have the depth or emotion I wanted. Now that I don't have to hang on to every terrible detail, now that it's all pretty much down on paper, I can let go.

Now, for the first time in years, I truly have a blank page. That's exciting and frightening at the same time, and partly why I haven't written as much. I'm not used to the freedom. It's like when rescued greyhounds are presented with a huge, open property to romp and run, but they just stand still. They've been in a box for most of their lives, and they're not sure what to do with all that open space. I built myself a cold, dark mental box and sat in it for about 8 years. Just because I'm out of the box, it doesn't mean I'm done writing. I'm just done with that stuff, I think. Now I get to think up new projects, and I have most of the garbage cleared away, and maybe I can even sit quietly in a coffee shop or go for a hike and just be happy with that.

Geez, that was a lot longer than I was planning. Well, next time I'd like to talk to you about Artist/Writer In Residence programs and why you should apply for one right freaking now. 


  1. So proud that you went on this journey. Many more to come with many more stories to tell. Just start putting up fake OkCupid profiles to attract totally wrong dudes and you will be ready to write a book in no time.

    1. Oh God no!!!!!! Haha. Thanks, Kat. See you soon! :)

  2. I'm so proud of you too. You are amazing!