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On wordless days

Some days I don’t have the gumption or the inspiration to write. Such times make me feel useless, ineffective at doing what I love to do. Today was such a day until just a minute ago.

Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

I left home early today to come out to the college. I always feel better when I have a quiet place to work away from home. There’s just enough noise here to keep me from being distracted by the little creeks and cracks that happen in my empty office. The other profs outside this office door go about the business of schooling. They discuss students. I can hear one complaining just now about student writing, one of the greatest problems any of us have. We all share offices here. Two other profs catch up after a long summer. They have shared an office here for years. Their banter provides a steady background noise that cancels out the little distractions.

Since the start of a new semester, I getting into the habit of coming out to the college hours before my class. I need this moment of reflection on  events and feelings. In the quiet of my office, somewhere, a poem will appear, just pop out. There’s always an essay in the works. I never know where an essay will come from or which one I will write on any given day. I just know that three to four essays a week makes me feel  better than just one or two, or none at all. In the quiet of my office, those essays, like the poems, materialize from the ether of thought and contemplation. They start as motes that gather others to them. Eventually, they grow and take on lives of their own. Then, I put them on a page.

I’d rather work in my office. When I work at home, little things distract me. One of the dogs barks. Another, having a dream, ruffs and whines. There’s food in the refrigerator. I need to mow the yard. I have a bed to take a nap in. I don’t usually watch television during the day. But once in a while, on a day like today when the words don’t flow, I’ll sit down and flip mindlessly through the channels. The feeling of worthlessness grows on me. The distance between me and a piece of writing widens. Soon, I’m surfing around channels because that’s all I am capable of.

Other days when I’m working at home, the wife’s also home and up. She works nights three days a week. On days before she works, I can count on working in peace, or as much peace as I can get while I’m at home. She’ll be sleeping during the day and I have the place to myself.

When she has the night off, the television’s on. She watches videos on her phone—the tinny and whiny sounds that emanate from the phone’s tiny speakers act like sandpaper on raw nerves. I grit my teeth, wait for it to be over. Sometimes she’ll use headphones, which I like since her activity doesn’t get into my personal space. Then, other times, she’ll start to tell me about her work life, the patients she tends to, the loves and hardships of being a nurse.

I try to listen, or look like I’m listening. But I’m thinking, I’m trying to write. This is my work. If I’m listening to you, I am not accomplishing the thing that gives my life meaning and purpose outside of family.

In short, home is not a good place for me to work.

When the words don’t flow, it generally means I didn’t go through the processes that I should if I am going to be a writer. The writing process starts well in advance of a word landing on a page. In order to write an essay  on a particular day, I have to start the night before. In the evening before going to bed, I write in a journal. There’s nothing spectacular in that journal—what I did on a particular day, how I feel, the frustrations and fears of day-to-day living. But a moment always arrives when I think of something I want to write about.

When that happens, I make a brief sketch in my notebook, usually write less and fifty words, mostly just a sentence. For instance, I used to hate cats. That small sentence, “I used to hate cats,” generates a line of thinking that winds through the night, in my dreams, perhaps, and then into the next morning. All the while, my mind works on that idea. I used to hate cats but now I don’t. Why?

Sometime the next day, I will try to answer that question. The act of hating cats is not interesting in itself, nor is the act of loving cats or even being indifferent to them. What’s interesting is how I shifted from hating cats to loving them. It hinged upon the moment that our cat, named Bill, wound up on our porch as a stray one winter night. There’s an essay in that. And an essay is what essayists write.

Usually the act of forcing myself to think about something to write brings forth a passel of ideas. Writing down a short sentence or sketch may not wind up transforming itself into an essay, but something that I thought of while processing the idea becomes an essay subject. I might think about how I used to hate cats and think about the wreckage of my past and how I still feel it. There’s an essay in that. Or, randomly, I’ll remember the stars on a night in the mountains. This turns into an idea that has atmosphere, feeling, and conflict. How do you contemplate the stars when you live in the middle of a large city? What do the stars look like when you are in the middle of the ocean with no artificial light around for hundreds of miles?

That turns into a thousand words, at least. On days I put in my thousand words, I feel useful. I have fulfilled the requirements for being a writer. I have written.

Today, I feel like a writer. You’ve helped me with that. Thanks for being here for me.



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