Here Lies a Writer

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A grave marker in a boneyard somewhere in the Tennessee mountains bears this engraving:

HERE LIES A WRITER… AS USUAL.

That very telling and all-too-common characterization is my favorite observation about writers. The truest quote I’ve heard attributed to a writer (don’t ask me who said it first) is this: “I hate writing—but I love having written.”

Therein resides the sum total of all obstacles to this craft—the writer’s own procrastination. Writer’s Block is a myth, an excuse bandied about by those who refuse to sit and do the work. You knock out the pages and you fix it later but you never, never, never stop writing. If you stop then you’re not a writer; you’re a slack jaw, an air biter, a bush-league bench warming bystander. In short, you’re a quitter. It ain’t tactful, what I’m saying here, and it sure ain’t kind. But it’s truthful and writers need a steady diet of truth.

It’s true that a writing life is a hard life and every time I sit down by my solitary lonesome to knock out a few paragraphs of any substance it’s a monumental struggle to come up with words that mean something to me. Every first draft is less than empty and I lean heavily on my talent and training to see me through to the deadline. I write every day, some days more than others. Using my creative muscles builds endurance and develops craft. When I finish a piece it’s not the result of a gift but rather the natural outcome of hard work.

Demanding of myself the regular output of essays is an exercise of endurance and creativity producing weekly posts and a good deal of knuckle cramping—just what I need to run my abilities through their paces. So, as regularly as I am able, I’ll be posting essays focusing on the human condition, which is my keenest area of interest.

“Here lies a writer” indeed. Lies—as in the telling of untruths. Perhaps.

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Yet

Up ahead, through the forest, behind the mist, and beyond the darkness… is the future.

It is very much in the province of optimism to believe that whatever comes along, it will come with opportunity. It’s as natural to rely on that certainty as it is to trust that when we draw breath there will be air to fill our lungs.

We count on opportunity, otherwise we would have no reason to live. And yet…

I love the word “yet”. It is utterly aromatic with possibility. It can turn a conversation in any number of directions.

The simple use of it twists the intent of a commonplace remark toward the dark abode of disappointment or the luminous realm of noble intent. There is no tedious middle ground with “yet”. It’s a conversation turner.

Literally taken, it can mean so far, despite, up to now, eventually, or in time. While it has been employed with negative connotations, my favorite use of the word “yet” represents an optimistic outlook:

“He wrecked his car, and yet he walked away without a scratch.” Or “Healing is a matter of time, yet it can also be a matter of opportunity.”

“Yet” is no mere literary device — it is the magical moment when steel meets flint and a single microscopic spark ignites a conflagration. It introduces a turn of fortune or lends a positive spin to any situation. There’s a promise of emotion built into it. Grammatically speaking, I can think of no single syllable brimming with more promise and more hope to fuel the drama of our imaginations, which are always inspired by challenge.

Were it not for our challenges, there would be no opportunity for us to overcome them. Exceptional innovations have sprouted from the nastiest of difficulties. To me the word “yet” will always represent opportunity — the door still unopened, the adventure not quite begun.

In its best usage it can be the sunny signpost on the path to everything hopeful.

The fine Russian novelist Boris Pasternak touched on the subject most eloquently — “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, yet it is very easy to miss it.”

Too many times have I reacted to that heartbeat of opportunity with trepidation. I try to remind myself that every uplifting consequence in my life blossomed from a decision to go for love instead of fear. Fear is the scoundrel here. Always will be. How much in my life have I missed out on simply because of the fear of missing out?

“Yet” is the briefest of adverbs. A very small word. There is real power, yearning, and magic it its grasp when utilized by a master raconteur or writer.

Without the shining optimism and promise of expectation this little word adds to my work, I think it would be an effortless thing to drift into despair.

And yet, …

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Ink

My mother was a letter writer. Mostly newsy little handwritten notes of a page or two. Her missives often included a clipping from an advice column, a positive quote, a prayer or snapshot, and a few gentle paragraphs of wit and encouragement. She always signed them, “Love, Mom.”

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A popular lament these days is that no one writes letters anymore. When was the last time you received a letter — an actual letter with a stamp and postmark from someone close? The effect of such a gift in your mailbox is stirring.

The obvious benefits of digital technology not withstanding, there’s just something remarkable in the feel of a few crisp pages in your hands along with the knowledge that considerable forethought and care went into creating them for you.

From my experience, it comes down to this — an email is grabbing a hot dog from a street vendor, whereas a personal letter is a sumptuous home cooked meal. Either one meets a person’s needs, but which will you really savor? I don’t know anyone who sits curled up on a rainy Sunday afternoon re-reading old e-mails.

But now that mom is gone, on the odd weekend I’ll often pour over her old letters and postcards. Some of them still carry the faint scent of her perfume or a slight smear of lipstick where she sealed the envelope. A letter is a tactile, tangible, aromatic entity. It’s considerably more than the essence of the person not present — it’s a comradely whisper, the crystallization of an emotional expression.

I have tried to follow my mother’s example with mixed success. The last few years it’s become important for me to try writing more real letters to those I hold dear. There is much catching up to do.

In 2008 my world shifted radically. I discovered I had a 32-year-old daughter I’d never known about. When she was 13 her mother had told her about me and for the next 19 years she wondered who and where I was. When she finally found me (on the internet by the way) it was a shock and a blessing for both of us. Immediate connection, same eyes, same face, exact same sense of humor.

In the weeks before I flew from California to Kansas to meet her for the first time, I thought about what it must have been like for her all those years. For our first meeting I wanted to make a gesture that would mean something to her. I gave her a polished wooden box. With 32 birthday cards inside.

In the weeks leading up to our meeting, every day I had written cards for all the birthdays I had missed. In each one I wrote what I imagined she might have wished at that time to hear from a father. She told me that she reads them every so often and now whenever I send a new letter or card she adds it to the box.

I often think of the gift my mother left me in those writings of hers and I take great comfort in Emily Dickenson’s assertion that a letter is a tiny bit of immortality.

While I take ease in a digital world, I find my real comfort in a simple paper letter from a friend — stamp, envelope and all. Language is the way in which we reach out. It is the essence of how we as people connect with one another. But it’s the device of our expression that defines its permanence. The fine English poet W.H. Auden struck the true emotional center of it when he set down in ink…

“And none will hear the postman’s knock
 Without a quickening of the heart.
 For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?”

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Fear

All the really ugly emotions are firmly rooted in fear. Fear that we won’t measure up, fear that we’ll look foolish, fear that we’ll lose success or love or respect. Prejudice is a product of fear. Anger too.

Most people, myself included, allow too many important aspects of our lives to be dictated by the anguish of embarrassment or the dread of what may or may not come to pass. So much of our self-esteem is bound up in what other people might perceive. And that is the polar opposite of healthy.

In the recovery group Co-Dependents Anonymous there’s a saying that goes, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” They have a lot of sayings but that one pretty much sums it all up.

I suspect that being the most sentient creatures on the planet, we’re instinctively bent on hubris. Humans have the biggest brain-to-body ratio so naturally we’ve got control issues. It’s that Power-and-Small-People Syndrome. Basically, as a species we think way too much of ourselves. Take for example your typical road rage. Why does it happen? One word…… Control.

You’re the good driver. You take extra pains to stay in your lane. You mostly come to complete stops, usually signal for turns and stick pretty darned close to those speed limits. Rules are there for a reason. Then another driver breaks the rules right in front of you. And why should THEY be allowed to disregard the letter of the law when you so clearly comply? That’s when the control reflex kicks in and you decide to force him to play by the rules. Of course tensions elevate and tragedy ensues.

We humans fear a lot of really stupid things that constantly land us in trouble. It’s a widely held conviction that any really important decision should never be made when one is in an elevated emotional state. Because nine times out of nine it’s not only the wrong decision but also the worst possible one.

I once read, and firmly believe, that we cannot control our emotions. But… we can control how we react to them.

Some people take issue with that and claim they have full command of all their emotions. If they truly have that power then they’re more disciplined folk than I. My experience doesn’t bear that out. My emotions suddenly arrive out of nowhere like a moth at a porch light. Where did that come from? And even though I’ve always possessed the power to choose how I react, it never really occurred to me to exercise that choice.

Once I did, I started leaning toward the path of least resistance, or rather the path of best resistance. Now when a driver cuts me off, I just stay out of his way. It’s not my job to make him obey the law. His family has to live with him, I don’t.

When I gave my daughter her first driving lesson, I told her, “You have no right — no right — to get angry at someone else in traffic. Most drivers are basically self-absorbed brain donors and when they behave badly it HAS to be what you expected. Always count on it. The only genuine surprise should be when someone actually drives courteously. That, my love, is the rarity and should be your only unanticipated event on the road.”

I give her full credit for taking that to heart. She’s a marvelous driver now and I’ve never seen her upset in the car. At least not because of other drivers.

Yes, fear is the culprit for every negative feeling we encounter. As a writer, I cope with creative fears all the time. Over the years many people who didn’t know me, and a few who did, have suggested I let go of this fruitless dream of being a writer. And there are days I actually consider it.

When you’re on your own, there’s only so much self-induced encouragement and back patting you can muster. Now, whenever taunted by self-doubt, I refer to a sign on the wall over my desk. It simply reads:

“FAILURE IS FAR LESS FRIGHTENING THAN REGRET.”

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