The Story Doesn’t Care

August 10, 2020 § 19 Comments

JulieBy Julie D. Lillis

Bed made and dishes washed, I stare at an unblinking white screen. I frittered away the morning, answering emails and writing far-away friends. I needed to do that, I told myself, just like I needed to bake the apple pie that now simmers in the oven. Sometimes I think I am a genius at procrastination. But, eventually, I am left with nothing to do but write.

My dad spent nearly 50 years as a journalist. His longtime editor at The Christian Science Monitor used to say, “The story doesn’t care.” As in, the story doesn’t care that you have writer’s block or are famished, that your sources haven’t called you back. The story just wants to be told.

I used to think that a real writer needed her own room to write in, that without a dedicated space, a writer could not write. I made my share of pilgrimages to the homes of writers just to see these rooms. Standing in O. Henry’s little house in Austin, I closed my eyes and imagined him easily churning out “The Gift of the Magi.” I felt the same sense of inspiration at Emily Dickinson’s, Louisa May Alcott’s, and Lincoln Barnett’s.

In Tarrytown, New York, in the house I lived in for nearly 20 years, I emulated these writers by turning a tiny bedroom into my writing room. I paired an old maple desk a friend’s soon-to-be-ex gave me with a black swivel chair from Staples and plopped a desktop computer front and center. I painted the room “Linen White,” festooned the two windows with cream-colored curtains, and hung up my favorite art and talismans.

All writers have those. A pastel drawing of the woods by my daughter, a portrait of my husband at a squirmy age four, a photo of his mother on her wedding day, and one of my grandfather beaming at my cousin’s wedding. A hand-carved, African sculpture my student Edwin and his dying mother gave me, on on his graduation day, with a touching note from them on the back. A little painting of Jesus that my husband bought me in Greece. Everything was carefully curated, visually interesting, and all mine.

No sooner had I decorated my lair than my family wanted in. Soon I discovered the evidence: my messy husband’s Latin books strewn across my neat desk, a laptop of teenage origin, dirty espresso cups nestled atop my journals. I did not like these incursions one bit. I tolerated this briefly, then rechristened my office “The Only Child Room,” announcing to my family that “Only ‘only children’ may use it.” In other words, me.

Surprisingly, this strategy worked. My family stayed out, and my writing life returned to a peaceful new normal. I resumed my morning routine, waking before the birds and retreating behind closed doors to think and write.

This was not an easy task, as Mother Nature continually beckoned to me.  Looking out the window by my left shoulder, I could smell the woods that crept silently to the back of the house. I could see the oblong patch of brambles and wild raspberries that I tried to keep weed-free. Raising the window slightly, I could hear the crunch of deer hooves on dead leaves, and the agitated chirping of blue jays whenever my cat Rocky lurked nearby.

I could look out this window forever, but the story didn’t care about the performance art living in my woods, about the raccoons and possums and deer who called it home. It didn’t care about the raspberry patch or the sun filtering through leaves in the summer or the birds’ nests above my sight line.

To my right, another window of magnificent procrastination. Two towering Douglas firs, their boughs waving like choir robes in the breeze, and under them, a splintery deck for lounging. I longed to be out there, sitting in desultory silence while the sun filtered through the pine needles, inhaling the gentle scent of lilacs that surrounded the deck like a stole.

But the story didn’t care that the sun beckoned like a Siren song, that Rocky lay waiting by my favorite deck chair, that my garden called out to be weeded in the morning.

Sometimes I long for that little room. I moved away three years ago, into my parents’ house in Maryland. There’s no space for an Only Child Room here, no room to decorate with talismans, no room to be only a writer. My old house is no more, too, razed to the ground one summer to make way for an apartment building.

So each morning, I sit on a Victorian loveseat in my new bedroom, laptop perched on my lap, notes and drafts strewn to my left. I answer email, text my kids, and wait for the washer to finish its cycle. I may not have the woods calling to me, but I still have my chores, and the house is never cleaner than when I want to write.

But the story doesn’t care. It doesn’t care that I miss my writing room, my house, Tarrytown. The story calls to me, but it is not patient and will leave angrily if I don’t obey. So I’ve learned to listen, to dash to the computer when the muse overtakes me. And I’ve learned that a writing room does not make a writer write.  A writer can write anywhere, on anything.  I’ve written poetry on planes, scribbled essay ideas on cocktail napkins, jotted down notes on cash receipts. I can even write in my little bedroom, snuggled between dirty laundry and a flat-screen TV. And the story doesn’t care.

Julie D. Lillis is a writer in the D.C. area.  Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Grown & Flown, and Months to Years. 

Writing is Everything

December 11, 2017 § 70 Comments

avk_headshot--hair_loose (1)By Ann V. Klotz

These days, not a lot of writing is happening in my life.  Even at the writing retreat I had looked forward to all year, I produced very little; my school needed me—about twelve times—and my family needed me: my adult-ing daughters, my teenage son, my husband.  Finally, I surrendered, realizing I would not be doing as much writing as I had hoped.  We can’t choose when we are needed.  I consoled myself with the idea that perhaps there would something to learn to write about later.  Six weeks post-retreat, the need to write is making itself manifest a million times a day.  Earlier this week, I heard myself saying to my husband, “Yes, right now,” but in my head, I had said, “Yes, write now.”  Writing is everything.

Even when I am not really writing, the rhythms of my life remind me of writing or of not writing.

Awake in the middle of the night, sentences form, but I am too tired to write them down.  In the morning, they are gone, geese honking in formation, headed South.  Who gives the signal to land, drop back, switch formation, I wonder, hearing their honking. A few nights ago, the first freeze descended on our garden.  Beneath the bathroom window, I note the herbs staggering, browned unexpectedly in their pots, branches stretched, desperate supplicants—all the writings I’ve started and abandoned.

Those abandoned projects reproach me. In the family room closet, I discover a bag of knitting, soft black wool shot through with colors–a shawl started long ago on huge needles. Some pieces call me years later, not yet finished, but patient, knowing a burst of inspiration will bring me back.

Stopped at a light, I watch a neighbor raking leaves, piling them at the curb. It’s a Sisyphean task, really.  Rake, rake, scatter.  I remember my Dad burning leaves in a tall metal basket, the smoke delicious at the other end of the garden where I clutch my bamboo rake, its teeth scratching across asphalt as I pretend to be Cinderella dancing with the Prince instead of doing housework for the Stepmother. I think about all the words I wish I had time to pile, one on top of the other.  A gust blows a swirl of leaves into the street: all the pieces that get away.

I walk on the treadmill thinking about habit, how good it is when my writing habit and my exercise habit are integrated in my daily life, how frustrating it is when one or both lapse, how fragile my well-intentioned routines.  “I am not a tumbleweed,” I counsel myself.  “I have agency.  Nothing is stopping me from walking, from writing.  Just get on with it,” I scold myself.  It sounds so easy.

I empty the dishwasher, drive our son to school, tidy piles of books and papers throughout my house, talk to my adult daughters.  I am moving through my life but fretting, too, about my stalled memoir. Am I stuck because I don’t have time to dig in or am I avoiding the hard stuff?

Recently, I came into the kitchen at 5:30 a.m., started the coffee and got ready to feed the dogs.  There, in front of the cabinet where we store kibble, lay a decapitated chipmunk, paws high in the air.  Shrieking, I fled.  On the other side of the swinging door, I felt embarrassed, trapped, helpless.  I wanted to be brave, to cope calmly with this unexpected gift from our cat.  Is the rodent a symbol of the tough stuff I’ve maneuvered around? Is it a call to action? There was no avoiding this corpse. I should not be afraid of small dead things, but I am.  Reluctant, I climbed the stairs and rouse my sleeping husband, who is annoyed.  When he understood the thing was not entirely the thing, he came downstairs.  I needed to do the dishes, feed the dogs, make the coffee, I bleated.  He knew what I needed was his care. I felt guilty and grateful when the small body wrapped in a blue plastic grocery bag was deposited into the kitchen trash.  I spilt the basket of old coffee grounds over it, ashes to ashes, grounds to grounds.

Last Saturday I found myself with several unscheduled hours.  My son was occupied, my husband napping.  Could it be true?  Time to write?  Inclination?  All those weeks flood onto the page, a dam unstopped.  I’m back.

Ann V. Klotz is a writer in the early hours of the morning and the Headmistress of Laurel School during the rest of the day and night.  Her house is overrun with rescue dogs and tiny cats.  She is trying a “do it yourself MFA” in Creative Nonfiction by taking one online course after the next, ordering too many books to read about craft and too many memoirs to read in one lifetime, studying recently with Kate Hopper and Joelle Fraser, and taking a zen position about the loss of her shift key.

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