Earlier this morning, I was cleaning up around my house and my office, getting ready to start the day I’ll likely spend holed up in my dark little office, wistfully looking behind me to see if the sun has yet fought its way out of the clouds or not. See, many writers–including myself–cannot begin daily writing sessions unless the dishes are done, the laundry is put away, and the dog is crashed on the couch. For me especially, I’ve found that when I have an important chunk of writing to crank out, I usually can’t focus on the words in front of me if there are distractions elsewhere in the room and sometimes even the house. And writing with someone other than my dog around? Forget it. If I want to be truly productive and on-point in my creative process, I now—blessedly—know that I must be at home, in my office, sitting at my desk, writing on my temperamental Dell desktop computer, with music playing low and slow–so low that I won’t be tempted to sing along; and my desk must be clean, or at least only cluttered with necessary writing notes and open books. The viscera of daily life—cell phone, daybook, foodstuffs, etc. have thus far only proven to do a disservice of one sort or another to my writing.
So, in preparation for several different computer-centric tasks of both the creative and non-creative varieties that I find on my To-Do list this fine Sunday, I set about clearing my desk of its many distracting contents. I set right some frames that had been turned crooked, re-shelved a pile of books I know I won’t need for a few more weeks, and took to the stack of unruly papers I’ve been cultivating over the last few weeks. A few days ago, I hurriedly emptied some folders I wanted to take to work, and I left all their contents stacked akimbo on the left side of my desk. Of course, because I am an organizational wizard at the most inconvenient times, this task quickly became a monstrously grand version of itself. Suddenly there were piles everywhere, color-coding systems at work, and I’d just thought to grab a recycling container when—to my great surprise—I found a folded-up assortment of old poems and essays I’d written in grad school, and on the very top, the first draft of the second stanza of one of my favorite accomplishments, “The Dead Man’s Zephyr Woman.” I read through it, full of nostalgia at the nascent beginnings of one of my best works, and then saw something written on the other side of the paper. Flipping it over, I saw another first draft of a poem, one I’d cast aside as unusable.
Any time I find something I wrote a long time ago, I brace myself to cringe at how awful it most likely was. In truth, I really only like my own work starting with what I wrote from about 2007-on. And with good reason, too—I didn’t know what I was doing or how to use my craft until I’d completed grad school, and anything written before that time is mostly a bunch of garbage. You might think I’m being hard on myself, but keep in mind that bad poetry can be really, really bad. But this—this barely born nugget of a poem is actually quite good. Sure, there were some bits that my writing comrade, Kelly, and I like to refer to as “reeking of newbie stink,” but on the whole, this untitled poem is pretty strong. I can’t remember why I thought it was no good or what I moved on to afterward but as I read it now, I’m haunted by the emotions it paints. It’s as if I’m reading the work of someone totally separate from myself—as if it were someone else retelling the events of my life.
It is a poem that, in a completely unrelated form, eventually made its way into my memoir, a poem about the experience of finding and playing a cassette tape-recording of my father’s voice long after he’d died. How the sound of his breathing–just his breathing–sent me running. For four days, I ran all the way up the Olympic Peninsula as far as it stretches out into the sea, to get away from the pain of that moment, hearing his breath and knowing it to be his, knowing that I’d never hear that sound again.
How funny to remember myself at the time I wrote out this scribbled mess: about half-way through my master’s program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, smack in the middle of some of the worst years I’ve endured in my adult life, trying to shape for myself some kind of career, 25 years-old. I can so easily remember thinking at that time that I had no business trying to be a writer, no business trying to create art. My professors must have seen some kernel of talent in my work to have accepted me into the program and to have taught me with such great care, but when I was in it—at that moment—I still had no confidence in their positive judgments of my potential as a writer. I’m sure you can imagine that there were a great many tears, many doubtful moments full of turmoil and strife and disappointment. It really wasn’t until I’d graduated with a sizable and auspicious thesis collection and then completed my beast of a memoir that I finally took my writing career and my talent seriously, finally saw in my own work what others had seen all along.
And to look back on this poem now, to see how far along I really was when I thought I’d barely cracked the surface, I have to wonder what I’ll think about my writing and myself another four, seven, 15 years from now. Will I be as harsh a critic, or will I learn how to be more kind to myself? Perhaps more importantly, can I grow as an artist without being so hard on myself?
I can’t answer any of these questions, but there are a few things I know for sure today, looking back by reading this little blue poem. First, I can see that at the very least, my writing only gets better with time—that is a potent reassurance. Second, I know that the only way for me to be a successful writer and human being is for me to live my life and live it BIG (which seems to be the only way I know how to do things anyway, so that all works out just fine). And finally, I am reminded that even when I am miserable, I have to remember that it won’t always be so–I won’t feel that way forever. When I wrote this poem, I was not only grappling with the death of my father and its role in my identity as a writer, my constant and paralyzing fear that there were no grounds for me to have an identity as a writer at all, but also—eclipsing all other stresses and miseries—I was as unhappy in my personal life as I’ve ever been before or since.
To remember the daily traumas I endured throughout that unhealthy time, living and sharing my life with people who didn’t deserve me, it’s a miracle I managed to write anything at all. Frankly, it’s a miracle I survived.
But I did survive, escaped with my life and my writing intact, and I am grateful because there is something that comforts me now, that I didn’t have before, and it is this: No matter what pain I am meant to live through, my writing will get me through it. Will be my undeterred companion.