When you find yourself sitting on a bench overlooking the Willamette, at five o’clock in the evening, in the freezing wind, eating a giant cup of chocolate and coffee frozen yogurt doused in a bucket of maraschino cherries and fudge sauce, one of two things is happening: you are five and have a neglectful nanny who lets you sit in the cold and spoil your dinner, or you are twenty-six and staring into the butt-end of the quarter life crisis you’ve been enduring for the better part of two years. I’m the latter.
If I had to point to the instance that signaled this moment was coming, it would probably be during my freshman year of college, when I read The Bell Jar for the first time and thought, “Finally, someone gets it.” Or maybe it would be the day after, when I shared this sentiment with my writing class full of science majors and was met with blank stares I could only interpret as, Maybe someone should check her bookbag for sharp objects. I am not like everybody else. Correction: I am not like science majors or math majors, unless they are also artistically inclined, in which case, I am a little like them. What no one told us as children is that the world is not kind to the artistically inclined. The world gives funny looks to the artistically inclined and occasionally hospitalizes them and, most commonly, forces them to work at office jobs they are simply not good at.
Since last July, I’ve had an office job. I spend part of my time doing admin work and keeping the proverbial ship afloat as best I can, which I’m pretty good at. I spend the other part of my time making sales calls, which is what I was originally hired to do (which, if you know me at all, is nothing short of hilarious, as well as a good argument for why the Greeks believed the gods made sport of our lives). I am not good at this part of my job, and more to the point, I don’t want to be. So why did I take it? I had no choice. I had been unemployed for eight months and had fallen so wholly in love with Portland that I refused to leave. This job was the only door that opened that allowed me to stay here, so I walked through it, knowing I was entering a cave. But I reasoned that being in a cave was better than having to leave the mountain altogether.
In The Lord of the Rings, there’s this creature called Gollum. He’s a wretched, amphibious thing who eats raw fish and lives in the dark and lusts after the ring with every ounce of his miserable being. But he wasn’t always like that. He used to be one of the River-folk (like a hobbit), but after he murdered his relative over the ring, he was cast out of the village and into the Misty Mountains. There, he lived in caves, where he forgot the feel of the sun and the taste of bread, and slowly morphed from something human to something not. This is exactly what happens to a writer when you put her in an office.
Exist in a place long enough, and for better or worse, you begin to adapt. You learn the fifteen names for each of the pieces of equipment your company rents because constantly saying, “You want what?” to customers makes them think you’re an idiot, and they already think that because you’re a girl. You stop being bothered by the seventy-five grammatical errors per flyer you send out because you’re genetically predisposed to high blood pressure, and you don’t want to help it along. You become the kind of person who gets up at six and goes to bed at ten when, just a few short years before, you were the kind of person who went to bed at two and got up at ten (admittedly, not healthy, but that’s beside the point). Perhaps most frighteningly, you forget that you have an MFA, that you’re supposed to be writing a novel, that you’ve been trying to find an agent for another novel for over a year, and that nothing you sweat and bled for in the course of your existence was supposed to lead you anywhere remotely like the place you are now. You forget these things because no one you interact with all day long gives a flying fig about any of them, and at some point, it becomes easier for you to stop caring as well.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I got here, and I can’t. I’ve been trying to figure out a lot of things for a long time, and I can’t. People tell me there are reasons, and I just don’t see them yet. People tell me God has a plan, and I need to trust Him. People tell me that suffering serves a purpose, and that one day, when I’m on the other side, I’ll know why all of this happened. People tell me a lot of things, and even though they’re true, none of them help me now, when I’m in the cave, and it’s dark, and it hurts, and it’s nowhere near where I want or need to be. When I’ve become Gollum, and everything inside me rages against that, but I can’t see a way back. If you take the sunlight from a flower, it will die, and that’s not drama. That’s science. But when your sunlight has been taken from you, and no amount of effort, praying, pleading, calming yourself, attempts at contentment, attempts at grabbing life by the horns, or anything in between–when nothing you do or don’t do changes one seemingly godforsaken aspect of your circumstances, what are you supposed to do to keep from dying?
The other day, I was talking to a friend, and at one point, I had a virtual out-of-body experience, where a part of me kept blathering on and the other part floated into the air, observed the scene, and said, “Good grief, girl, you are all over the place.” And I am. Interacting with me has always required a bit of following the glow-in-the-dark breadcrumbs, but it’s getting worse. One look at everything I’ve written over the past two years will tell you that. Take my blog posts: the number of shessems–which are nothing more than fragmented thoughts gathered into groups–have far outweighed the number of coherent prose posts (or as coherent as I ever get). The novella-in-fragments I’ve been attempting to work on since November has the very word “fragments” in its name. My failure to process is astounding.
Now, I could chalk this failure up to the incredibly difficult, confusing, head-scratching, what-the-bloody-hell-is-this turn my life has taken. I could say it’s not that I’ve failed to process, but that the ability to process is beyond my scope of accomplishment. I am small and human, and there are some things I’m not meant to understand. That’s all true, as is the fact that I’ve been prone to write poems and shessems and other fragmented pieces lately. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s good to experiment with form. But what all of these excuses–and at their cores, they are excuses–fail to take into account is that I am a novelist. A storyteller. A processor. I like clearly stated theses, through lines, and to the extent that such a thing is possible, tying what I write up with a crimson bow. This is how I’m wired, plain and simple.
So here I am, on the bench, eating my yogurt in the cold, thinking all of these things, and the wind picks up. I tell it, “Blow. Go ahead. I’m not moving.” And I don’t. And later, as I walk around the neighborhood, it starts to hail, and I lift my face to it and say, “Hit me with ice. Do it.” And I keep walking. Why is it always raining on me? I don’t know. Can I control it? No, I can’t, but I can control how I react to it. Can I avoid the fact that I need money to survive in this world? No (well, maybe, but the bottom line is I’m not that clever, and I have other things to do with my time). And maybe I can’t get myself out of the cave, but damn it, I’m going to try. And while I’m still in here, I’m going to do my best to un-become Gollum and remember who I am.
Who I am requires processing, so it’s time to start imposing form and stability on my scattershot existence. This means reading novels and writing through-line blog posts, and it also means returning to my own stalled-out novel. You know, the nun novel, the one that refused to cooperate with me all last summer and into the fall, until I finally relented and set it aside in favor of writer’s block, then a meteoric relationship that ended in a crash-and-burn heartbreak I’m still nursing, then a novel-in-fragments I fully intend to return to one day, when I myself am not so fragmented. I am in no position to be writing first drafts and trying to figure out what form something should take when I myself am wholly formless. What I can do is return to a novel whose structure is already there, whose characters I know well.
And maybe, just maybe, I had to set that novel aside for this very purpose. So that today of all days, the day after the first day of spring, when it is colder in Portland than it’s been in weeks, when I spent the better part of my workday hiding in the bathroom and wiping away tears, when I cried on the way home and then arrived at my house and cried some more, when I went for a walk and sat in the cold eating yogurt at dinnertime, and after, took a shower, plopped down on the couch, and attempted to gather my thoughts–that after all of that, I might have something to return to. Something I created before I entered the cave. Something that will open an arm to me, tuck me in close, and whisper my real name over and over: not office wench, not inside sales girl, not abandoned lover, not failure, not Gollum–writer. It’s not going to solve everything. But it’s a start.