All is Still

It is extreme early morning, and I have risen to sit in my chair by the fire. It is not a place for lounging, but for writing, because I discovered a while ago that I need the fire, and the view, and the companionable lickings and scratchings of the dogs to feel most at ease, and best able to write. But lately, it is not a productive place. My computer glares its ugly light at me, probably contributing to the addled state of my brain.

I am becalmed, unmoored, directionless, my rudder stayed. 
No words come.

Writing for me is normally a joyful process. The words spin a music in my head, and I record them. I know from experience that showing up to this place at this time is the only way to prod myself to create. But now, nothing is working.

I have written advice to other writers. “Just show up,” I wrote. “Write anything,” I wrote. “The muse will appear,” I wrote. But so far, my own advice has been useless.

My usual methods of procrastination are well known to me and to my husband. I paint a room. I organize my office. I cook. But these methods of avoidance are now habits, and a day spent in routine housework seems like a good day. But it’s not.

My brain feels addled, shallow, inadequate, like the gushing rain from the gutter that doesn’t nourish the ground, but spills over, ripping out plants, washing away the soil. Four books I want to write spin annoyingly around on the fringes of my thoughts, skipping away, avoiding my grasp. Is it the usual process? Or has something gone terribly wrong?

I try to pray. I try to meditate. I struggle to read. But always there is this random, unsatisfying, disjointed flutter of thoughts. No ribbon of continuity, just jagged lightning strikes of nothing very much. My brain flickers from thing to thing without any process. 

I am not particularly interested in conversation. What used to be daily calls to friends have sputtered into sporadic text messages, without context, or any continuity. Lightning strikes brought to relationships.

In this pandemic, time is a limitless illusion, and therefore time does not seem precious. Long-term projects I could be doing: exercising, playing the piano, training the dog, painting a room, are all things I can do tomorrow.

I nap. Sometimes they are long, delicious naps, from which I usually awake with anxiety at the waste of a day. 

I plan to read today. Long, engrossed, serious reading. I need to concentrate on something else. I keep hoping that turning away from screens and to words—my own and anybody else’s—will flip the switch.

But then I think of all the unplanned, unsuspected things that feed a writer’s mind: the sudden whisp of fragrance, the overheard snippet of conversation, the glimpse of light, or the flash of bird wing. These are the food for the inner world that comes out later in the scent of a character, her thoughts, or a description of a scene. I never know when something I’ve lived will come out in my books. But what if I’m no longer really living? What feeds the writing, then?

I walked outside in the unusually warm February sunshine this morning, and the dogs, startled by this break in routine, joyfully came along. I heard birdsong, and road sounds, and the slow dripping of melting snow in the eaves. Last night in the dusk, the sky was rose pink from the departed sun, and I heard, for the first time in months, the bells ringing vespers at the seminary nearby, and the soft chirp of flying ducks. The moon, almost full, rose and cast shadows on the snow. These are all markers for me, but they are not experiences of the sort I use most. I realize how much the natural world is my backdrop, the inner voice, but not the experience. Not the story line. And this surprises me, because I always thought it was. 

In this long pandemic sojourn from the world, I have not been unhappy. I have felt calm, somnolent, and wrapped in solitude, almost like a fairy tale character set to sleep while the world passes. Cloistered, but not lonely. But in order to write, I need something more than being hidden behind a fortress wall. I know, beneath the melting snow, the bulbs have put down their roots, the trees are beginning to send their sap from their roots. I can only hope that somewhere my writing heart is stirring, too. But so far, hope is all there is.

Skunked

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So at 4:56 pm yesterday, four minutes before my you-can-stop-working-now alarm went off, I was done. My husband was away, I had worked all day, and I was a little stir crazy. So were the dogs.

I combed my hair, put on some lipstick, and decided to go to the local farmers’ market to see if there was anything tempting. The dogs had already had their big walk of the day, but it was cool and cloudy, so they could come along and sit in the car if I stopped. That way they wouldn’t sulk at being left behind.

We all piled into the car, but when we got there, everybody had already gone. I needed to see the sky, so we went for a little drive. After some random driving around I ended up at the grocery store. Not as good as the farmer’s market, but I’m always happy with a fresh rotisserie chicken.

As I returned to the car ten minutes later, I opened the hatch to put the groceries in the trunk. Moses was leaning his face on the backseat looking soulfully at me. “Oh, you big baby,” I said. “You are such a good dog. I know what you want.” He sighed, his eyes never leaving my face. “Ok. Just one little spin around the woods. Would you like that?”

So we went to the woods. I in my new jeans and new suede espadrilles (I know) and dogs in their usual attire. The woods have trails that make successive circles with intersecting paths. One long route around would make everyone happy.

As I walked I was very pleased with myself for having made this decision. I had needed this as much as the dogs, but they especially deserved something extra nice for having been so patient all day. The sun had come out for a bit, and it was a beautiful night.

Why is it that when I get all sentimental and self-congratulatory something bad always happens?

Pete is always the pack instigator. He’s the one who ran off the path to sniff at something interesting. Moses immediately followed, and Auggie galloped after them with his adolescent enthusiasm. At first I thought it was a routine disgusting thing, and then I thought it was a squirrel because I could see the white tail flashing. It was not a squirrel. Squirrels do not have white tails.

Thank God, Auggie listened to me and did not get close. Pete, too, managed to get away. Who knows how.  But Moses, who is particularly fond of squirrels in a way that squirrels don’t quite appreciate, got a full frontal spray of skunk. I think he must have gotten a mouthful of it. I was so concerned about getting them away from there that I barely attended to his misery, which was profound. But by the time we ran back to the car he seemed better.

Let me tell you that skunk smells much, much, much, much, much, much worse than you think. My dogs have had minor skunk encounters, so I had been lured into thinking that these situations are not all that bad. I was wrong. It was a very long five minute drive home.

Then began the fun part.

Today we did a re-treatment with the anti-skunk enzyme, which is pretty good, except for the fact that you can’t just spray it on a dog’s face, where the worst smell is. Then we will wash Moses again. And probably again. And we will wash all the towels and things with the enzyme too. If that doesn’t work, the towels will have to go.

Possibly we will repeat the process. I may also buy some tomato juice for his face. Maybe tomato paste.

I suppose I should be grateful that I only have one skunky dog, not three.

Did I mention my car? And the suede espadrilles?

I’m not sure this counts as procrastination for the novel, but the results are the same.

UPDATE:

And then I noticed the lump on Moses’s leg. Skunk Bite. Vet visit. Rabies booster. Antibiotics. Rotisserie chicken dinner for Moses. Wine for me. Possibly bourbon.

The Vagaries of Writing

I have been procrastinating. It is a well-known, but little understood phenomenon of the writing process.

Every writer procrastinates differently. My method is cleaning and de-cluttering my work space, and finishing up little tasks that distract me. Having a clear, open space, and no little worries helps to clear my mind, and then the ideas that are spinning around my head in an inchoate mess suddenly coalesce into plot lines and sometimes into complete scenes. I know this process, but it is very hard to accept that I need to do it when I feel a deadline looming, and time slipping away from me.

The other night I was driving home from some evening event and suddenly an entire sequence for the new book entered my mind, and I couldn’t get my coat off fast enough to write it all down. It is an odd sequence–a departure from my usual style–and after a few days of musing over it I put it down. It was risky, and it didn’t fit the book. Maybe another book.

Then everything stopped. I couldn’t write much. I couldn’t catch the wind that sails me through my writing. I sat at my desk, restlessly, unproductively, staring out the window, looking at YouTube videos, researching mammals and explosives (not together), and periodically going downstairs to see if I could alleviate my boredom by eating.  Spring snowFortunately, knowing myself, I have purged my kitchen of these kinds of foods, and even though I am a novelist, drinking in the middle of the day does not normally appeal to me. I consumed a lot of tea, and far too much coffee.

So, finally, I gave up. I stopped worrying about it and just got on with other tasks. I cleaned out a closet in the kitchen. I rearranged my office, and made plans for new bookcases. I dusted under beds. I threw a small dinner party, and took the dogs for walks.

This morning I began my day pre-dawn standing barefoot on the patio, loudly and frantically calling my dogs in–no doubt to the amusement of my neighbors who were recovering from their New Year’s Eve revelries–while a fairly large contingent of coyotes barked and yipped and howled somewhere very nearby.

Dogs safe, I sat drinking coffee and watching the turkeys begin their new year from their treetop berths, their big bulbous shapes silhouetted against the pink and orange sky.

All at once, the spinning stopped, and the words began again in my head. My refusal to accept the strange sequence as part of the novel had shut me down. I suddenly knew that it did belong, and that it had to be the beginning of the book. And then everything began to fall in place in my mind, like the tumblers in a lock falling into place.

There it is. Not all of it. But the main points of it.

Time to write.