I raise my hand the first time, when Cynthia Whitcomb asks which of us in the packed "breakout" room at the convention center are writers. Yes, I think, of course, but something in me is tremuluous, uncertain. Really? The chairs behind me, beside me, even the wall along the side of the room, everywhere I see writers, many with nametags, bold print displaying the presence of an AUTHOR. !
I have no nametag.
And then she laughs, and says she knows how to truly tell who is a writer and who is not. "Do you feel bad about not writing? Then you're a writer!" Her head is thrown back, and we are all laughing, and we are all feeling bad. I should be writing this very minute, I should not be sitting in breakout rooms on folding chairs, I should be writing.
Whatever I do, wherever I am, the words are running through my head, sometimes darting in and out, squirrels with nuts, back and forth along the fence, scratching and twitching and flipping their tails; sometimes rolling, over and over, hula hoop down a hill, ungainly but constant, velocitous. I am coaching cross country, this season, and as I run with the girls and the boys I am hearing the awkward music of these words. They slip through the gaps in my breath, in my goofy create-your-day sort of reminders, "relax your shoulders," I say, "let the tension drip out your elbows," "take control of your breathing," I tell them, "slow your heart down, you have the power."
"Light on your feet, light on your feet!" I yell, and I am writing a poem, it has pounding-rolling of the outside edges of rubber shoe-treads and tripping over hazelnuts and rhythmic, hips opening, breathe-heart-knee-shoulderblade-beat.
But I do not commit it to paper, or glowing late-night laptop screen, I fall asleep with sweat dried in the small of my back and hamstrings singing their ache, the dull all-the-time everywoman hurt of repeat 1000's and pushing bikes uphill with four gallons of milk and two boys. Into the half-sleep of motherhood it tumbles, along with an agonized story of a fractured relationship with... someone... and the sweetest reflection on love I call "no wedded bliss."
I say to myself, she had such promise, and I stack those words in carefully tagged and hand-labeled boxes in the attic of my brain. It is in the state of my life, well-conceived chaos, boxes neatly packed, then rudely torn open by a child's hands, bits scattered in tantrums adult and toddler-like, stained with coffee and little gobs of over-ripened fruit. In my store-room are starts of novels which are actually memoirs and plans for community groups that are actually revolutions, uprisings, there is devastation there, world-changing, and all the time the quiet plink of melodic word upon word. In another room I listen to Hope Edelman tell of a memoir-that-was-a-novel, she talks of the "intimacy of fiction" and the "urgency of non-fiction" and how she was "tracing the landscape of the self" and how she turned to a notebook where she'd recorded just a few of the most unusual happenings, a session in Belize with a Mayan healer because "it was important for the reader to experience the events in real time." When she says these things, the sense of urgency rises until it almost chokes me, I scribble in my notebook, I panic.
Splayed in my physical life are books, too, which inspire and destroy me. That I have not yet read each one, that the ones completed have not yet been reviewed with the seriousness of my sublimated lit professor self, twists in my stomach, boll-weevil, wood-bore, powdery mildew of my brain. I have read Cheryl Strayed's novel and it astounds me with its humanity and with its complete and unconditional love for her characters. I buy the thick, substantial, consonant book Deeply Rooted, a book about "unconventional" farmers, because I have heard Lisa Hamilton read from it and I have cried, over farmers and North Dakota and East Texas and the beauty of her writing, I have read as much as I can and it has not been enough. I have read all but a few chapters of Langdon Cook's sweet collection of essays on foraging for food, and I am missing from it a narrative thread but am now considering the calendar and whether I might come to Washington to dig razor clams in winter, and go to a meeting of the Oregon Mycological Society. I buy Jam Today, A Diary of Cooking with What You've Got, a pretty bit of a book by a woman who lives in Ashland, Oregon, and of course I want to love it but it is an inconsequential wisp of a food book and it needed to be edited and the tone makes me so unhappy. And it is supposed to be funny, this "Warning: There is no jam in this book," but instead it is infuriating. There should be jam. I am reading other books that are not good, or are disappointing, or are not what I would make them, or whose characters are flat and unsympathetic and whose sentences are too short, and the words fly around my head, those little black flies that are bigger than fruit flies but not big as house flies, bothersome and not worth being bothered by. There are books stacked on my night stand and on my dresser and on my book case and in my craft room, books everywhere, books worth reading, books I long to read again, books I never should have bought or should have returned to the publisher.
And then Cynthia Whitcomb, describing the time when she read a play every day, and meant it to be for a month, then for two months, then a year, but it ended up being 500 plays, one per day, says something. "If you put in enough good stuff, then your brain will give you back good stuff," and it seems so simple. That night I pick up Hemingway's A Moveable Feast again, where I left off months ago, and he is in Paris. As I read I remember how his wife packed a suitcase with his writing, and it was stolen, I had forgotten this little story though I think so often of him when I am worried about writing. Nearly all of the stories he had written, and the first novel, the carbon copies too. He is sad but, in Hemingway fashion, practical, terse, and plan-making. "I knew it was probably a good thing that it was lost, but I knew too that I must write a novel. I would put it off though... When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice."
And I am not Hemingway, this is no novel, but it is what I have to write. There is no choice. I must brush the apple peels and the shortbread crumbs from my words, I must wipe my table clean, I must pick them out of the unkempt piles in my brain, stack them again, color-coded, organized, a rainbow painted within the lines. Here is one, and there is another, and spandrels! persimmon! seedpods! conqueror of emptiness!
In the spaces between nutcracking and terror-calming, preserving and stomach-filling, marketing and running and mess-cleaning, I eke out words, one by one by one, I will unpack them all, and those that are lost, I will replace with new ones, I will make them again, one day I will live in this house of my mind as if it is my Home.