Wednesday, August 31, 2011


The last month or so, I have been practicing the blunt art of hopeful, writerly waiting. It is an interminable end, full of false hopes and starts, only made worse by a desire to control things, to seize the reigns and drive the waiting to an ultimate, unhelpful conclusion. Success or failure. Acceptance or rejection. An unfamiliar area code on the cell phone sets the heart racing, until it turns out to be an automated calling system, or worse, an old friend. Waiting diminishes even the best surprises.

Walt is digging the books these days, and one of his favorites is John Lawrence's This Little Chick. We read it when he wakes up from his long morning nap, and sometimes again before he goes to bed at night, and even again still in the middle of the day (it's a very short book). This Little Chick is the story of a woodblock chick who visits the different animals and fits right in by making their sounds. To the pigs, he oinks, to the ducks he quacks, etc., until he finds his way again to the mother hen. Back home, the other chicks cover their ears to block out his incessant chirping, while, oblivious, he goes on and on. Nothing, it seems, could make him happier.

In Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt argues that all adolescent fantasies are based on one of three absurd scenarios. 1. The world is overrun with zombies and a group of kids must band together to defeat them and restore the supremacy of the human race. 2. The planet is ruined and a group of kids must leave Earth on a spaceship to find a new home planet. 3. Human society has been decimated by disease or technology and a group of kids must establish a new order. All three scenarios require (and so explain) the absence of adults, and necessitate an acceleration in the natural succession of things. Boys become men, girls become women, and everyone can practice the anxieties of adulthood in the peak physical conditions of youth. The antithesis of this by-necessity precociousness, Oswalt explains, is the 1970s television show, Fantasy Island, in which a mysterious billionaire grants the wishes of his guests, who despair when they get what they thought they wanted. Here's your fantasy, but it's actually a nightmare, so how do you feel about wanting it? Now leave the island.

"Duck" was Walt's second word. He is a huge fan of ducks, and birds that resemble ducks, and also goldfish. We sit most mornings in front of the May page from his animals calendar, while he points at a giant orange-and-yellow goldfish pasted on a blank white slate. The fish, it seems, is hardly even a fish. It swims through nothing. I love this time with Walt; that he is pointing and beginning to say words; for my chance to sit him on my lap, smell his head, sneak in a few hugs, and quietly do nothing. He is entering a highly mobile stage marked by very poor choices--leaps down staircase, tumbles into swimming pools, fingers in sockets and around ceramic bird statues too heavy to hold--and I enjoy these moments of stillness. Perhaps they are not choices at all, but instead reactions, the trial-and-error that will one day help him make choices. A year ago, he was newborn, mostly still and quiet. I couldn't wait for him to be a big kid. I prefer this time, now, but the slow days have made for a very quick year.

I am writing a memoir, or a collection of essays that will serve as a memoir, and I sometimes fear that they will sit on an imaginary shelf next to the collection of poems that is also unpublished. I know that there is a steadiness required to endure the reality of writing and publishing, and for the most part I feel like I do a good job of plugging away daily and doing the work. I am terrible at sitting still. Often, there is a sense of waiting, for an acknowledgment, then the right kind of acknowledgment, then the next big thing, and then some corresponding understanding, after the fact, that what comes next is just as muddled by error, judgment, and pretense. I feel either clever or sober enough to say that this will probably never end, that it is one irrefutable aspect of a life organized around genres, arguments, subjects, forms of art. But one part of putting your work out there is asking it to be accepted or rejected by a larger audience, and even the most positive trends can feel immensely discouraging.

I tell myself that passionate self-promotion is a symptom of mediocre writing, a desire by a writer who knows the work is lacking to patch over the weak parts with bravado and bluster. But there is an undercurrent to this line of thinking, a certain defensiveness about waiting, and a corresponding eagerness to make the ends justify the means. Waiting should be distinct from a sense of entitlement; that something might happen, as opposed to it should or must, just as the writing should be due rather than the writer. I suppose it doesn't always happen this way, but I hold out hope that it usually does.

Cait and I have taken up running the last few weeks. It is hard on my poor arthritic toes, but I do okay if I only head out a couple of times a week. We make loops across the campus, usually pushing Walt in his stroller as he munches pretzels and watches everything pass. Sometimes, he falls asleep. We do not run very hard, or for very long; when I look at our times and distances now, relative to when I trained for and ran the marathon, it seems like kid's stuff. But we feel good after the run. It's nice to spend the time together, to chat a bit and work up a sweat. We are getting to know our way around town, and we are feeling and looking leaner, faster, fit. Or at least we imagine we are.

I ran cross-country for my high school team. I was a terrible runner, but I was excited to be a part of the team, and two years in a row, I won the team spirit award. That second year, we went to a meet where there was no scheduled junior varsity event. The coaches got together and decided to run it themselves, after the varsity race was timed and scored. We second-tier runners lined up on the field and my coach huddled us together for a brief chat. "Coach," I said, "I'm going to win this race. I can just feel it." "John," he said, "I'll bet you a Snapple and a slice that you won't be in first place by the time you get to that tree." We looked eight hundred yards out to a big oak, in full autumn bloom. "You're on," I said. The gun went off and I sprinted out as hard as I could, opening a huge lead. I could see my varsity teammates and my parents, a little startled, cheering me on. By george, he's hit his stride!, they were thinking. Keep going, John!" they all yelled. My lungs burned. I pushed as hard as I could. When I got to the tree I reached out my hand and slapped it, keeled over, and collapsed on the ground. The entire field caught, then passed me. I finished the race second-to-last, before an exchange student who had gotten lost in the course was retrieved in a golf cart. I thought Coach would be impressed, but clearly I had done something wrong. He said nothing the whole drive to the pizza place, where I got my free pizza and Snapple.

I am trying very hard to believe that there is no good hustle in the writing world, that eventually the work comes forward and is either strong or weak, fashionable or distinct, memorable or forgotten. And then I am also spending an awful lot of time checking email; my phone for missed calls; the mailbox for self-addressed stamped envelopes. A writer I admire once said that the early anxieties are the easiest. Waiting to get published is much easier than having your work published and realizing no one is reading it, or that no one is reading it anymore, or that it isn't getting anthologized and is largely forgotten. In this sense, it is hard not to believe that the goal posts are mobile and always moving, that much of a writing life comes down to timing and persuasion: the right reader looking at the work at the right time, and believing in it. Which, I suppose, could rightly inspire either optimism or pessimism about the process, or maybe just unrelenting confusion about taking any meaning from it.

1 comment:

Miss Mary said...

Hi John!

As usual, I love this! I love how you write, and can't wait to read your memoirs, and your essays (my favorite type of writing!). Also, I was a cross country kid in high school too, and I was never very good either, so I appreciated you winning that slice and Snapple. I would have been so proud of myself. Hope you and Cait and Walt are doing great! Miss you guys!