I’ve been wanting to sit down here in Blogsville and compose a new entry to keep my writing engine warm in what has so far been the frozen tundra of 2014, but I’ve been doing the proverbial spinning in my chair. Yesterday I started an entry about time and compression in fiction, which I’m wrestling with in a new story. But early on, I got bored with myself and my ruminations. The process of figuring out what would be “good” to write about felt cold, sterile, stupefyingly dull.
It got me thinking about why I set up this so-called blog in the first place: to give myself a defined space that, because of its weirdly public-private status, makes me work a little harder than my personal notebook. But I realized that I’ve lapsed into thinking too much about what to write, forcing myself to come up with a subject even when nothing comes to mind. Partly this can be a good thing; I need to push myself to keep working even when I don’t have the urge, or when I’m stuck or listless. But my recent pattern feels different. To narrow it to its most reductive, cliched state: I’m writing from my head instead of my heart.
Oh, the heart. I couldn’t help but think of that lovely passage from Salinger’s “Seymour: An Introduction”:
Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? … I’m so sure you’ll get asked only two questions.’ Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.
As much as I love this passage—it’s tacked to my bulletin board next to an Onion calendar headline—the older I get, the more I quibble with the “how easy” part. Were my stars out? Good heavens. Some days I’m not even sure the sun has risen. Writing my heart out? As if it’s breaking out of my chest, exposed to the world? Or until it’s squeezed empty like an old toothpaste tube? Yes, to both. But sometimes, before I can get the old girl back inside, to get back to regular old cardiovascular business, a bird swoops in, tears off a chunk in its beak, and flies away. Sometimes I can’t catch my breath as it tries to fill back up.
A more honest perspective: you will be able to say yes to these questions, but some days it will be unimaginably hard to do so. Some days you will write with boundless joy, your stars like chips of mica at the edge of your sky, your crimson heart as naked as Eve. But some days you will write in the dark, from the pit of your liver—because your heart? she can’t take it right now—and you will do it only to stay alive.
Funny, we don’t say, “I was writing my head out,” even though the head is the metaphoric place of imagination, presumably where our stories begin and flourish. But it is the heart—”that bloody motor,” as Grace Paley so wonderfully calls it in “A Conversation with My Father”— where we lodge desire, courage and fear, love and longing; and those are the parts that make a story live.
And so I must remember to return to my heart, dear reader, even when—especially when—I am terrified to haul it out, afraid that it will be tedious, frivolous, sentimental, bumbling.
Because what if it isn’t?