I hit a writerly speed bump the past couple of weeks. This happens. I’ve made a lot of progress on this book project since New Years, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. There’s a shape I can see. There are several new essays that need honing, and some older ones that need reworking, and it feels like a narrative trajectory is shaping up. I’ve been sending things out, and a couple of them have caught, and a few have come back and for the first time in years that process does not feel life or death, does not feel like a referendum on my ability to do this thing. But about two weeks ago, I hit a blank. There just wasn’t anything in the tank. This too, used to freak me out, but now, I know not to fight it, know that when I find myself looking at the cursor, or dicking around on Twitter too much, that means it’s time to go do something else for a while.
So I’ve been out in the garden getting that up and running for the year. There are greens and onions and parsley all coming up already. In the front, the bulbs I planted last fall are blooming, and the cherry trees are getting ready to burst into blossom, and I’m starting to see some seedlings sprouting from the buckets of wildflower and poppy seeds I’ve strewn out there. And I’ve been reading fiction again! I’ve been tearing through Maggie O’Farrell’s novels (while I wait for Hamnet to come out in paperback because I read it on the kindle, and I want to read it in my hands). And sewing. A lot of it is utility sewing — more pants (I have a pants template that is easy, fits my odd bod, and only takes a couple of hours to run up), and a couple of simple long skirts. But I also made a jacket. The Merchant and Mills Foreman Jacket. It’s a menswear pattern, but I made it in a lovely soft robin’s-egg blue linen, and I love it. I told my bestie that I’d made the Monty Don jacket of my dreams and she said “It’s a garden show! Not fashion!” But really, that’s my favorite look — rumpled, comfortable, lots of pockets. So now I have my much shortened Monty Don jacket in soft blue, and a bunch of new pants and long skirts in brown and olive linen, and I’m ready for spring.
The past couple of years it’s people talking and writing about making art who have been the most useful when I get stuck. I think its because of the way contemporary art has shifted it’s focus from the object, to the practice. I haven’t sold a book in decades, and I really only publish a couple of pieces a year, so my production of literary objects is … sparse. But I write, and make things and garden pretty much every day. If I have a practice, this is it. The Talk Art podcast, for instance, is a joy. Driving down valley to walk the dog I listen to Russell Tovey and Robert Diament talking to artists about what they make, and how they make it, and what they want to make. It’s very joyful, and manages to almost never be about the commerce of art.
It’s always been the commerce side of writing that I’ve found impossible. I got paid so little for my first book that it was very very clear that I was not going to be able to make any kind of a living as a writer. And I sold it to a big publisher. When Patrick died three years after my novel had come out, I was about half way through a new novel, which I abandoned. It was about horse people and class, and my grandmother and in that moment of crisis it seemed absolutely dead, and meaningless, and I put it away. It seemed clear to me that I was going to have to write about the experience of losing him, of losing a second brother as an adult after we’d survived the death of our toddler brother as children. Patrick and I had been dining out for years on stories about our family, about the bad behavior of both of our parents, and at that point, in the early 2000s, the misery memoir was just gaining steam. People were telling me this might be the time, the time for that story. But I was such a wreck, and couldn’t see any trajectory at all.
We used to have a little film festival during the winter on Sunday afternoons, and that winter after Patrick died, the Andy Goldsworthy movie, Rivers and Tides, came to town. Goldsworthy went out every day to make something, and he didn’t know what he was going to make until he did it. There’s a point in the movie where he sort of bellows that at his wife (in a funny way, not in an art monster way). And he made things that essentially could not be sold. Icicles stuck together that then melted. Leaves pinned together with thorns, and suspended from twigs that eventually showered down upon his head. Rocks piled in shapes. That they couldn’t be sold brought me a real kind of joy. That he was just out there making things. For a while I had this Goldsworthy-inspired practice where I pulled a slip of paper with a topic on it out of a jar every day, and wrote about it. I wasn’t striving for a particular word count. And if it was too painful a topic, I put it back for another day. It was a really useful practice that year, when I was so sad, and missed my brother so much, and was tasked with rebuilding myself as someone who didn’t have siblings, someone alone. I generated a lot of content that way, content I’ve used over the years in various forms.
I’ve written some other things since then, but I keep coming back to the idea of writing that memoir. It became a sort of white whale. I need to write the memoir. I need to get it out of the way. After a really great workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of summers ago, I came home and wrote out the whole narrative of the trauma that was losing Patrick. It’s not bad. I got it down, and said the things I needed to say. But it’s still not the book I want to write — in part, because of the commerce aspect. Just as I was so panicked about clearing up Patrick’s so-called estate all those years ago, just as I recoiled at the prospect of having to sell all his belongings in the street, I discovered in the process of writing that material out that I don’t want to sell our story, don’t want to have to go on the road and answer questions about it.
And it’s fine! I wrote it all. I found that out. It was great practice.
All that work was not for nought. I have all that content, and a lot of it is coming into these essays that I do want to write — essays about grief and climate change, trauma on the private and planetary level, gardens and land art and representation and the practices by which we save our own lives, and perhaps, by sharing them, teach other folks how to save their lives as well. Essays about what it means, as my old Beloit College prof John Wyatt used to say, to live a good life.
Practice. It takes a lot of practice.