Several years ago, I lived in an old house off Granby Street that had lovely hardwood floors, a retro kitchen, tacky green carpet in my bedroom, and a wood-paneled front room that served as my roommate, Andrea’s, office. I got up one morning and went to make coffee in the new, fancy coffee maker my dad had gotten me for Christmas. I flicked open the filter canister, and to my surprise, I found the canister teeming with small, white, almost translucent, bugs. They were crawling up the back of the machine, into the water tank, and through the electrical component.
The bugs had taken over the coffee maker. I stepped back, disgusted, annoyed that my mission for coffee was deterred.
I did the only thing I knew to do: I unplugged the machine, took it out to the back porch, set it on the floor, and went back inside to boil water for the French press.
This was the way I dealt with problems when I didn’t know what else to do: I hid the problem. I stashed it on the back porch and tried to employ the idea, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
It worked until the next day when Andrea came in and asked why the coffee maker was on the back porch.
I’ve grown up a bit – I don’t hide broken or infested appliances on the back porch anymore – but I still have this misconception that if I can’t see the problem, it can’t affect me. That point has been driven home to me this week.
This morning, as I was scanning my Twitter feed, I noticed a NY Times article my writing buddy posted about authors who Tweet. Intrigued, I read the article, which was good except for the gigantic gaping hole of an omission – they forgot to include Tayari Jones, who in my book is the queen of authors who Tweet.
The article detailed this mythic image we have of writers: lone wolves; slightly eccentric and definitely reclusive, writers are hard to have relationships with, they prefer solitude, and they sit alone in their towers and create. They never, ever use Twitter.
However, this myth doesn’t quite pan out in our contemporary understanding of most authors (there are, of course, noted exceptions). In fact, the article uses the word “hermetic” to describe the type of separation that we seem to expect of writers, a separation that fizzles in real life.
Many authors have little use for the pretension of hermetic distance and never accepted a historically specific idea of what it means to be a writer.
Hermetic calls to mind airtight seals, preserved ancient documents or even cryogenic frozen humans. But hermetic also means “protected from outside influences.”
I shared with a friend this week that it took me two and a half years to write fiction after I finished my MFA in fiction. As she pointed out, it’s not that I didn’t write. But I didn’t write what I was trained in. And that always bothered me. My writing life was like my coffee maker: teeming with weird bugs, dysfunctional and useless. It was banished to the back porch, and with it went all the accessories: AWP, writing buddies, articles on writing, craft books, anything that might bring into full focus the feelings of ineptitude I had about writing.
It’s been a years-long journey to bring my writing life back inside the house, off the back porch, to fix it and make coffee with it again, if you’ll follow my weird extended metaphor to its not-so-natural conclusion.
I attempted, you see, to hermetically seal my writing life. I didn’t want to take a workshop or read a craft book or immerse myself in a writing community because I felt like I no longer belonged there. I was a fraud. Didn’t they know I was working with a buggy, infested, completely useless writing life?
This week, I’ve had two writing dates with MFA friends; I’ve completed the cursory outline of my novel, showing me that it is more fully realized than I thought; I’ve begun planning the panels I’ll attend at AWP, and for the first time in years, I’m not running away from craft talks: I want successful novelists to tell me their tips, the lessons they’ve learned. And I think that’s because for the first time in years, I don’t see their success as a reminder of my failure. I don’t hear a writer say what works for them, and think, “Wow, I suck. Nothing works for me.”
I told my dad last week that there is a tendency, especially early in one’s writing career, to ask writers for all their tricks: what time they write, what they wear, do they listen to music, do they drink coffee or tea? We hope to find the right combination of external factors to equal up to a successful career. I realized long ago, and was reminded this week, that whether one writes with music, or in a coffee shop, or looking at a pond, or in a white dress, the point is that they write. The point is that they don’t banish their writing lives to the back porch to collect dust. And when bugs invade and all seems lost, they clean the pot, walk away, let it dry, and come back later.
And these days, sometimes, they post a funny Tweet about the whole mess.