Earlier this month, Nathan Ballingrud wrote a blog post called “Writing Around the Heart.” This was the last line:
“I appear calm on the outside, but inside it’s all wind and high seas.”
I think that’s a beautiful line, but I’m copying it here because I thought it was true about me as well. (Perhaps it’s true of many writers.)
I seem like a calm person generally. And competent. (The thing about having a law degree from Harvard is that people assume you can do all sorts of things you probably, actually, have no qualifications for. Like organize a new writing program. They assume you have a kind of general competence. But it’s me, too. I sort of seem that way.) But underneath the surface, there are all sorts of things roiling. Most often, creative ideas, but really all sorts of things.
Last week, I was at a faculty party, and I was talking to two of the other teachers. Both wonderful teachers, both people I like very much. And one of them asked me what I had done over the winter break. So I mentioned working on my dissertation, and writing my column, and another project I’m working on that I can’t mention yet. And blogging every day. She told me it was amazing that I was doing so much, and then the two of them talked about the movies they had seen. They had seen four or five. And honestly? I kind of envied them. I had seen exactly one movie, and I had blogged about it. It seemed wonderful to be able to actually rest.
But the truth is, I’m not the sort of person who can rest for long. When I have time to myself, I usually start a new project. I think it’s just that there’s so much I want to do, and I always have more ideas than time to do them in. For example, if I had time now, what would I do?
1. I would start my first novel series. I have it all planned out.
2. I would start on one of the short story ideas I have. I have a lot of short story ideas, all plotted out. They just need to be written.
3. I would add more poems to Poems of the Fantastic and Macabre. It’s still such a bare site, and there are so many poems I want to add.
4. I would e-publish some of my short stories, probably through Smashwords. Maybe even my entire first short story collection.
5. I would publish a poetry collection. There are several ways that could happen.
And that’s to start with.
I think the thing is, I live at a certain level of intensity. Wind and high seas. Some of that intensity is emotional, some of it intellectual. And it finds expression in creativity, in making things. If I’m not making things, I feel lost somehow. I feel as though I’m failing well, let me explain.
There are two things I’ve believed since I was a child. Perhaps they’re strange things to believe, I don’t know. The first of them is that I’m here for a reason. I have something to do, and the times I’ve been most sad in my life, even despairing, have been the times when I’ve felt as though I wasn’t accomplishing whatever I was supposed to. It’s as though Mother Night had given me a mission, and I was here to carry it out. So I always felt as though my life had a purpose, and I was here to fulfill that purpose. But I could fail, and I didn’t want to fail.
The second thing I’ve always believed was that I got help. Somehow or other, things happened that taught me what I needed to know, to fulfill that purpose. I look back at my life and I wonder, about various things, whether they were a waste of time. Was going to law school a waste of time? But law school, and being a lawyer, taught me to write in a particular way. What about graduate school? That, too, taught me to write in a particular way, taught me so much about literature I could not have learned elsewhere. And I look at ostensible failures and realize that from another perspective, they’re successes. Taking so long to finish my PhD but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have begun my writing career.
So I get help, but I still have to fulfill my purpose, do whatever it is I was put here to do. And by this point I know, because I’ve known since I was a child and because by this point it’s become obvious, that it’s about writing. Writing is what I’m meant to do, not as an end in itself, but for an end I’m probably not going to be aware of, not going to understand myself until I stand in Mother Night’s house and she explains it to me. And shows me which part of the pattern I am.
I suppose that’s the surface calm: it’s a kind of faith. And underneath, it’s wind and high seas, and I’m living so intensely that every moment has its joys and despairs, its epiphanies. And the words come out, like a river.