On Being a Writer Who Wanders
April 8, 2020 § 13 Comments
By Mary E. Fiorenza
I have many unfinished writing projects. They often nag me, like my mother used to nag me about chores. The goal of tidy and done makes a certain kind of happiness — at least for certain people.
Each of my unfinished projects has taken me places. I walked miles of sentences, rode waves of paragraphs, parachuted out of pages into unknown territories. Each has mattered in the doing. Is it important to mention here that no one got hurt? We have all remained on friendly terms, at least most of the time.
The nagging is mainly retrospective. And then, perhaps mainly because I myself ventriloquize voices of industriousness. I would never say I don’t want to be done, only that done might be overrated. Or if not overrated, over indulged.
The best part of writing for me has always been the part where my hands move, my thoughts move, too, and not often in a straight line, or not in a line I expect. Not knowing where I’m going pulls me along, exerts a force that is as physical as gravity, as many-dimensioned as time travel. The lure of moving from not-knowing to knowing tastes sharp and salty.
You won’t be surprised to learn I don’t follow recipes. I might start with a cookbook or a Google search. I make note of ingredients, quantities, the recommended temperature. Even so, I find myself adding wine instead of lemon juice, substituting coriander for basil, using the kind of pan directly prohibited. I can be happy stirring a pot. Sometimes eating is beside the point.
I have been a thesis-statement rebel, a having-an-outline refuser. If it’s already planned, I don’t want to follow it anywhere. There is difficulty in this way of writing and in this way of being in the world where clocks and calendars exert so much influence. Do I need to change? Am I all wrong? Do I need more self-acceptance or do I need a new methodology?
Being past the age of 60 by a few years now, I feel some compulsion to take account of my life, as if whatever my life might be were already established. This is the time of life when people who are lucky or who planned well (or both) tend to retire or think about it seriously, and if you are someone who is not retired, people ask you when. They assume you are done.
By 60, where you are can be seen as an outpost of where you have been, and whatever you have accomplished becomes a place on a map. You have already arrived. (Or you never will?) It is common to assume someone over 60 knows their place in the world and wants to keep it. When they travel, it’s with an itinerary. Why would you want to waste time or wander in circles?
Wandering can be dangerous. You don’t want your toddler to wander into the street. You don’t want your Dad with dementia to wander out the door.
And still, if I know anything about myself I know this: I am a writer who wanders.
One definition of wandering includes the word “aimless.” We expect people to aim themselves toward goals and locations. No one buys a plane ticket without knowing where they’re going and when. We expect high school graduates and college students to aim themselves toward careers. People aim to get a job that is not boring or at least pays well. People aim to put food on the table, to pay the rent or mortgage. They aim to get some sleep when the baby sleeps. Or to write a few words before she wakes up. They aim to stay awake with the baby who will eventually stop crying though it seems she’s been crying forever.
I see power in setting an intention, having a destination or dinner in mind. You need to pack for the journey, gather the ingredients.
Lately, I have been saying I don’t finish things. And although this felt like honesty the first few times I said it, now it feels more like labeling myself with a social disease or admitting I am morally flawed. But aren’t we all flawed?
Wandering is be here now. It wants dilly dally. It’s blue sky, ocean, and clouds. It’s different from being lost or even stuck.
Mary E. Fiorenza teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She writes essays, poems, and stories that are sometimes finished and from time to time have been published.