This happened on the same day that our car, which we had just purchased a new battery for, wouldn’t start in the driveway, and though arguably less crucial to life, and much cheaper to replace, the broken printer filled me with a more terrible sense of loss.?I’ve had that printer for sixteen years. Sixteen years!That’s longer than I’ve known my husband. I bought it when I was in grad school, when I was tired of sending out poems printed all wobbly on my mom’s hand-me-down?ink jet. The HP 1200 LaserJet cost $350, and at the time, that seemed like an enormous amount of money. I remember feeling like an adult, and like a real writer, when I bought it.?It?lasted through countless Apple computers?Four? Five??and has printed countless poems; it’s printed my poetry manuscript and parts of my memoir?and various essays in their draft stages, and many student assignments,?and it was only when I went to print the first forty pages of the novel I’m writing that I mistakenly fed it a recycled piece of paper that was actually two pieces of paper, with a staple between them, and something snapped.
It seems outrageous that after all these years, it was a staple that did it.
But that, I suppose, is life, and if I make too much of the demise of a printer, let?me just say that I’ve had this feeling lately that life is all these concentric circles, these interwoven links, and that everything is connected. So, for me, the loss of the machine that’s helped me put my writing into print for over a decade feels a bit like the loss of an entire era, like the loss of those lovely grad school years when the printer was new, those years when I could spend an entire day working out a poem, bring it to workshop, take it back home and work on it some more. That first year of grad school I lived in a makeshift apartment in a rickety old house in Amherst, and it was my first year living alone in quite some time (I’d had a live-in partner, and college housemates, before?that). I can remember the night I thought drinking?a second bottle of wine by myself was a good idea, and the night I broke up with someone but slept with him anyway, and the night I overheard every word of an argument between my landlords over the recycling bins and whose turn it was to take them out.
And then I moved, to an apartment in Northampton that was as charming as it was noisy, and the printer came with me. My desk was an old door from a house my parents were renovating propped up on two filing cabinets, and the cords for my computer fit through the hole where the door knob would go. The printer was on the far right, and despite this unwieldy late-nineties desktop computer and the large LaserJet, there was enough space for me to sit, comfortably, between them. The desk was in my bedroom, but I’d made a psychic barrier between the bed space and the writing space, and every morning I wasn’t teaching?I’d stumble over to the desk with a cup of coffee and get to work. Some days the poems came like water, trickling easily out of the faucet, and other days they were labored and slow. Always, I’d print them, read them out loud, change a comma, read them out loud again. I drank so much coffee in those days; my anxiety, and my adrenal glands, shudder with the memory.
But was it a simpler time? Of course it was. When writers ask whether an MFA is worth it, I cite those hours at that desk and the feeling of summer camp, like I was writing in Northampton while Leah was writing in Sunderland, with Leslie at her desk in the adjacent room, and the Bens back in Amherst and someone else out in Greenfield, all of us working away like satellites in communication with one another, pausing for whatever; or not working, and pulling our hair out, and blocked?but that was our job, that, just to try to work, not to parent or to homestead or to be married or to publish?we didn’t even worry that much about publishing! Perhaps we should have. But just to do the work. I’ll never get that time back; I’ll always want that time back.
I left Northampton on January 1, 2001. On New Year’s Eve at 9:45 p.m. I’d been painting my blue walls back to white and packing the last of the boxes. Later, I walked over to see some friends. I’d already kissed Laura goodbye, and Leah was long gone, and Mikey vowed to stay in touch (and did). Jim Foley was very much alive. And off I went the next morning, drove out to Portland, Oregon, with my little brother, hitting every winter storm whatever region we were passing through could throw at us. And when he flew back to Boston a day or so later, leaving me to my new life, I cried like I’ve never cried before or since, with loneliness, with anguish, with the deepest sense of loss.
But, and perhaps this was no accident: a week later, I met the man who would become my husband. And then so many things happened that truly feel like fate: us?deciding to travel together for a year, and us getting engaged while we were traveling. And me writing a book about that year of travel, and about my surprise, after always having felt outside of it, to have found a man who truly loved me. That book spanned the next decade of my life. And then we moved?to Norway and had a baby, and when we got back, we tried again, and?again, and again to have another, and I wrote about that, too.
And here I am, terribly pensive of a January morning. L didn’t want to go to school, and his face turned puffy with tears. B tried to rationalize with him about school and its importance, but I eventually just held him and said, “You’re having a really tough morning.” My morning was tough, too: the printer, the car, the muddled-ness, the awful news of the world.
“You’re squeezing me too tight,” he said, but?I wasn’t sure what else to do but hold on.
In fact, one of the greatest challenges of living in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area for me is that, though the weather is quite frequently amazing here, we don’t really, truly, get a summer that’s hot, hot, hot?and I miss it. But somehow, this past week, we’ve had something pretty close. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry (well, duh?it’s always dry) and the fog belt has been belted in, like so many unsuspecting children in the back seat of the car on a summer road trip (uh….). The garden is bursting at the seams. L is doing a fun summer camp and we’ve been biking there in our shorts. Then he has swimming class in a town beyond any mention of fog so I sit on the sidelines baking. Online classes make?my time a little more my own, too. I went to yoga the other day for the first time in months.
And I do not. Feel. Like. Doing. Any. Work.
Suffice it to say that my huge enthusiasm for my new writing studio has waned some, simply because, while I love being in here, it also feels like an imperative to get off my butt and actually produce some writing. I’d love to! I really would! But man, it feels challenging.
This is not just because summer is so very, very tempting. It’s also because B and I are making some Big Life Decisions that are occupying a lot of brain space. And along with that, I’m in that very weird, somewhat-exciting, somewhat-terrifying place of starting a new project. A novel. It’s the same novel I started months ago, during NaNoWriMo, which I promptly relegated to the back burner once the book proposal and revisions entered in. But now that all of that is done, I have no excuse but to write the damn thing.
When I was a kid, my mom used to remind me, every time I started something new, that change was hard for me. Man, that was an understatement! The first day of?Kindergarten wasn’t pretty. Starting high school sent me into a ten-day long depression that I still shudder to remember. Going away to?college was awful.?I’m not at all good with transitions. And so here I am, with one project to bed, sort of, and another on my desk. I know what needs to happen in the book, mostly. I have the premise all tied up. But I have a major problem to solve?I’m trying to write a character who’s a stand-up comedian, and frankly, I’m not that funny (actually, I’m hysterically funny, but only in person, and only to a small handful of other human beings). This?is making me completely overwhelmed. In my more productive moments this week I’ve Googled “how to write humor” and done a few exercises that have been marginally entertaining. Then I kind of stare at the paper and freak out. I think what I really need to do is just jump in with both feet, get messy, and attempt to be funny along the way.
But I’d much rather be sitting in the sunshine with a good book and completely avoid it, because it feels really hard.?
So, as I said,?I went to yoga the other day. During class, I had a bit of a facile realization but one that’s nonetheless reminding me something about the artistic process. The class was an hour long, and about halfway through, I got to that point that every yogi gets to in a yoga class: the moment when you really and truly hate it and wish you could go home. Your body hurts, you’re sick of mindfully breathing, the teacher is so annoying, and your thoughts have taken over and are running you ragged. Then, five minutes later, you calm down and remind yourself that the only way to get to the other side is to breathe and press on. Next thing you know, you’re done.
This is kind of like writing a book, I thought to myself. Not very much like writing a book, but enough like writing a book that I should remember it.
Here I go: breathing, pressing on, and attempting to wow you with my comedic prowess. Wish me luck.
I teach writing to art students, who, like me, are concerned with something I nebulously call The Artistic Process (how we make art). In class every semester, we watch Project Runway, the show where fashion designers compete for the chance to win a bunch of dough, a design contract, and other juicy industry contacts. I show them the first-ever episode, “Innovation,” when the designers are asked to make a fancy dress for a night out on the town?out of materials they find at the supermarket.
After we watch, I ask the students to decide who had the best artistic process. This semester, they chose a designer named Daniel, who was confident and focused and above all, stayed the course. He chose materials that were easy to work with: a garbage bag, some tinfoil, and some butcher paper. He had a clear vision, they said, and he always stuck to it, no matter what. That, they said, was good process.
But when I asked them to decide who had the best final design, they chose everyone but Daniel. They chose the guy who’d made the dress out of corn husks, who adapted gracefully when the husks all shriveled up overnight. They chose the woman who made a dress that looked like netting, with a flouncy skirt–she’d planned to tuck crayfish into the nets but decided at the last minute that it would be too stinky. A few of them even chose the guy who’d had a blunt moment of inspiration, wrapped his model up in a shower curtain and sent her down the runway.
So, I asked them, how is it possible that the guy who had the best process ended up with the worst design? Dumb luck, or?was his process not so great after all? After a while, we agreed that maybe the best process is not about (blindly) staying true to your vision, but about being adaptable, being fluid, being open to suggestion?and above all, knowing when it’s time to start over.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot.
Over the weekend, at a party, I ended up deep in conversation with my friend Greg. The details don’t matter, but suffice it to say that Greg is both a fantastic writer and a psychology student, and he’s one to dig?he gets you to think about things, like, say, your book, deeply. And after he left I spent the rest of the weekend with the nagging sensation that I needed to change something. One voice said, “No! It’s done; stop tinkering. Stay the course.” The other said, “Maybe you should take a risk and try something different.” So I sent my cover letter to Greg, and he and I talked about it yesterday. He had a whole new idea for me, and somehow, in the conversation, I ended up feeling like I understood my book better than I had in years. I understood why this book ever felt worth writing. I understood why it could be a good book. And above all, I understood that I could breathe new life into this whole querying process if I totally rewrote the pitch.
So I took a deep breath and did it.
Now, I’ve always found other people’s suggestions helpful; I’m someone who thrives on advice. But I also get deeply attached to things, and I’m terrible at change, so when I decide to do something different it comes with a predictable feeling of horrible dread and fear, followed, ultimately, by relief; but it’s relief tempered with regret (e.g. “Why did I send out the cover letter with the old pitch to all the GOOD agents? What if they’re all taken by the time I polish up a new letter?”). This sensation isn’t just reserved for writing. I notice when I decide to shift something about my parenting style I go through a period of anxiety that whatever I was doing before was terrible and I’ve probably screwed up L. for life. But that’s no reason to keep blindly sticking to the same course, right? Taking risks is hard, but I’m realizing that probably the best way to do your best work is to know when it’s time to try something different.
So, part four: course correct. Change it up. Take a risk. Be responsive. Write a new pitch.
Oh, in case you’re wondering? Daniel and his butcher-paper-and-garbage-bag dress lost. He was eliminated in that first episode. The delightful Corn-husk man won.
I'm working from the premise that motherhood is not just all diapers, tantrums, and setting limits. It's interesting. Okay, sometimes.