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Archive for October, 2013

Ever since I moved back to Billings, I’ve taken part-time jobs that I’ve felt would give me the space necessary to write. First, I was a barista, where I was told I could excel just by being myself and smiling. The creators of those trainings knew nothing about people like me.

I spent a year at that place. I wrote like crazy. I had to, or it would have been for nothing—all that pretending my true self was a person who sincerely believed in the transformative properties of the eggnog latte. I walked my neighborhood and beyond it at night, circling the gated communities on the west side of town. I dreamed of a place, possibly in Sweden, where I could exit my ludicrously ugly condo every morning, same as always—but instead of getting in my car, driving out of our complex, down King Avenue and its big-box stores, all the way downtown, I’d walk straight to work through a silent, snowy forest that went on as long as I needed it to, that could freeze time and me in it. I thought I’d be alright if I could have that one small thing.

I’d wondered if it was worth it—forcing myself to do something that didn’t make me happy or anyone else happy for longer than the time it takes to drink an overpriced coffee, just to be a writer. But if there’s anything I know absolutely about myself, it’s that a writer, unfortunately, is what I am. I can’t change that. I tried once and it didn’t take. I’m not saying the world would suffer any great loss if I didn’t write. I would. I’d be lost. I’d have to become a different kind of person, and probably not a better kind.

This is different than saying writing makes me happy. Finding the time to write, even with a part-time job, means I’m constantly staking out writing hours and protecting them from perceived threats—other people, vacations, chores, anything that might steal those precious hours from me once I let my guard down. It’s exhausting, and I’m not sure it’s good for me or people who are sometimes forced to share space with me. I wonder if I’ll always have to defend so fiercely my chance to do the thing I’m best at, the thing that gets me through this life better than anything else I’ve ever known.

While writing makes my life better, it doesn’t make it easier.

***

The High Plains Bookfest was held in Billings last weekend. My former instructor and always-hero, Alyson Hagy, read at a historic theater alongside writers Pam Houston and Emily Danforth. Sitting there in the dark, I felt moved by their words and by the shock of remembering how much I missed experiences like this one, post-MFA. I read all the time, of course, and I exchange emails with my writer-friends and occasionally share work with them. But there is no substitute for a person standing in front of you. There is no substitute for experiencing the power of language in real-time, in the flesh-and-blood.

***

These days I work directly with homeless and at-risk youth at a drop-in center downtown, a few blocks away from the Starbucks where I’d mechanically pumped five squirts of syrup in every hot Venti drink, six in the cold ones. My new job requires my investment, my energy, and a limitless, unblemished tundra of patience. No amount of “surrounding myself with white light” on the drive home–as I’d been advised by one of the center’s counselors–makes it easier to hear our clients’ stories or keeps me from thinking about them all the time.

When one of our youth went missing for two weeks after saying he was “going away for awhile,” we checked the inmate list on the county jail website daily. Then we started calling the morgue. Last week he walked in as though nothing had happened. He told me a friend had called him, placed a gun to her head, and fired while he was on the phone with her. He didn’t say where he’d been. He’d found some old friends. He seemed alright. As usual, he forgot to put his bowl in the dishwasher.

It’s an impersonal thing, pain, like a plane that falls from the sky, like a horrible accident that everyone scrambles to explain—pilot error, bird strike, whatever. It makes no difference. No one can stop something like that. The plane falls or it doesn’t fall. The only certainty is that no one’s life is easy.

And too, there is no way to protect people—or oneself—from the forces that have nothing to do with us, that come from somewhere else and without interest or mercy undo us. But we’ve got to believe these forces, bored already, will one day slide past, just keep sliding.

Not long ago—last year—I’d written blogs like this one and felt better having written them. By this point in a typical blog I’d have come to some kind of understanding, something about how writers must be courageous, how deep and unrelenting uncertainty can be a powerful spiritual force, etc. Since then, I’ve started dozens of such blogs, trying to resurrect those old feelings, but end up returning to fiction instead—which, lately, has been the only way I can think about these things with anything approaching clarity or honesty. Though I do hope someday for the ability to write sincerely about my life without descending into blank-minded terror.

I’m afraid of living here forever. Of making tiny compromises that I’ll tell myself won’t matter. Of forgetting what it’s like to be part of a world in which words aren’t just a mere formality — complicated noises that take up space.

It’s a relief—an unexpected one—that very little of any this is up to me. I’ll do what I can. I’ll find ways to keep working. In the next few years, we’ll move to a new town. Like many of my friends, I’ll get a teaching job, if I can. I hope it won’t be so confusing to connect the frayed and wandering threads of myself, that next time it won’t take so long to plunge my hand through the snowbank and find myself where I left me, warm and breathing.

There is no perennial forest outside my door. There is no way to freeze time. But every morning a glacier slides over my bed. Ice crystals grind against my skin, tearing me up. I’ll learn to welcome it. I’ll learn to lie peacefully and wait for the sky to come crashing through the roof.

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It’s been a while, blog of mine. I haven’t had much to say. Maybe later—maybe years later. For now I offer the doll scene from Louie:

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This is pretty much how it’s been.

My story collection is off leading a life of its own, I hope, at [publishers], and I’ve been working on a very strange novel half the time and spending the other half at my job at a center for homeless and runaway youth. Lately it’s been hard. I keep sitting in front of my computer trying to make something happen, and finally all those words coming out of me start to mean something. But it’s never just sitting there. Sitting there and trying’s important—but it’s only a part of what makes writing possible.

That other part is what I’ve spent much of this blog, many walks, and hours and hours of conversation trying to define. It takes obsession and faith, and, for me, the knowledge that writing, like every job that’s really mattered to me, is a service position. It’s not therapy. It’s not about self-expression. It’s something that’s undertaken in service to oneself and others, because it’s really about describing what it means to be human and to live, exploring all the ways it is possible, how we harm and sustain one another, how what is indescribable might be, one day, described, and even how we artists fall short of these grand and noble goals. “What we respond to in any work is the artist’s struggle with her own limitations.” This is true. Because the limitations and the struggle are about all of us. At the same time, we artists mustn’t take ourselves too seriously. We must, however, take the work seriously.

“If I can get your email, I’ll shoot this estimate over to—oh, okay—” The man sitting a table away at the coffee shop is talking into his cell phone. “I’m just trying to squeeze it in—squeeze it into—” I have no idea what it’s like to be this man. He wears a white cap and a white collared shirt and khakis. He smiles a lot for no reason, while typing. Sometimes I cry while typing, but never in public.

Once, while sitting in the full sun by my window on North Hodgeman, I began crying while writing part of my story, “Chiefs.” I’d diverged from the story to get a little closer to the heart of the collection, which was about loss and how people fail one another. For whatever reason, the part I was writing moved me to tears, though that part wasn’t good enough, in the end, to keep in the story—it was raw, irrelevant. Emotional writing often isn’t very good. It tells the reader how to feel, and it doesn’t give him a chance to have his own feelings. Ultimately, something written in a surge of emotion fails to move a reader as much as a piece that sneaks up on you, that builds and builds and finally leaves you devastated–or crackling with feelings too complicated to name.

That day, I’d looked out my window and noticed a crowd of strangers standing a few yards away, facing me in my window. I lived in what might have been the ugliest house in one of the worst parts of town, and the group appeared to be students from the university who were led by a professor, and they were standing in the dirt lot that was my yard, looking at the power lines sagging overhead, at the railroad tracks, the overpass, and me weeping in my house. I’m not sure why they had come. Maybe they were part of an art class, maybe they were studying History. When they left I wrote the ending of “Chiefs”:

He remembered the day Anna left. He sat at his table and started writing her a letter. Halfway through, he was sobbing so badly he had to push the paper away. Then he looked out the window. There were two white girls standing in his yard. They were looking at him, at his house. They had notebooks it their hands. As he watched them, they turned and walked to a group of young people who stood around a man in his yard, all with notebooks in their hands. There was a van parked along the highway with the name of the community college on the door. The students looked around at the power lines and at things the man pointed at—Conky’s truck, his boots on the steps, a dead squirrel someone had hung from his tree, its body flat and dry like a banana husk, turning in the breeze. They wrote furiously in their notepads. Conky moved out of their view and stood against the wall until they left.

The part of the story I’d written while crying is gone, and the parts that remain–including the ending–are those shaped in the relative clarity that takes place beyond my own limited feelings, when I’m trying to describe how it feels to be someone else—how it feels to be a character I’ve invented out of pieces of everyone I know. I am not Conky. But because I can imagine how Conky feels—and because I trust that you can, too—I don’t need to tell you. Hopefully, if I’ve done the minimal requirements of my job, you will, after reading the piece, understand how Conky feels when he moves out of view and stands against the wall.

Emotions can help you get where you need to go. But the real gift of writing is getting outside of yourself. It’s not escapism—it’s connecting to a greater whole, to the lives of other human beings whose existences are normally sealed off from us.

The man in the white cap is gone. It’s dark outside and I’m one of the last people here. “Night Moves” is playing from invisible speakers high above me. Impersonal paintings on the walls and an emotional, overwritten piece about Billings’ homeless in one of the free copies of the city’s “women’s magazine” with pictures of female leaders on the front, airbrushed. I’m here, too, trying to write this thing. Taking it very seriously, indeed.

In a few minutes I’ll pack up and go home. Tomorrow I’ll be working with a group of incredibly vulnerable people who are just trying to survive, most of whom don’t have time to make art, much less think about why they’re making it. My book will seem like a tiny green island. I’m far from shore. I drift in the current. The youth I see at my job will be in the water, too, but their islands will look different from mine. “So what are you doing with your life?” a boy asked me last week. We were playing pool and he was in a bad mood. I said something like, I’m working here, with you, and the other part of the time I’m a writer. He stopped listening halfway through, lining up his next shot. Really, I’m doing what everyone’s doing. Trying to make it, trying to do something that matters.

Tomorrow morning, before work, I’ll be sitting here again.

I hope you’re still reading, or you’ve skipped down to this part, where I direct you to my friend Katie’s post about writing and the gift of “accidental devotion” :

It is a practice that explains one to oneself, but it can be the sustaining ritual that makes a space for your humanness. I have only been alive for a little while, but I already know that there are not many places in the world that allow you to be human, that nurture humanity. To attend to humanity is to be attuned to suffering of any kind (you can suffer joy, I think, and you can suffer grief). It is in this way, I think, I hope, that if you let it, writing, or art, can be the thing that makes you more human than anything else allows you to be.

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