“I need a whole other life not to let this one go to waste.”
In a recent interview with the poetry magazine jubliat, poet Lynn Xu was asked, "Why do poets want to publish? What part of the process or practice is publishing?" I love her response:
I don't know. I can't speak for everyone, but I think a lot of us publish because we want to be part of the history of reading, which is often a deeply private thing.
[...] The book is at once made (the publishing model being one example, which includes the writer) and not made (it seems, so much of its life comes from the spontaneity of discovery, which is streamlined with one's life, where you happen to be, what you are doing, thinking, feeling, etc.)... As a child, it never occurred to me that books were made. They simply existed. And they belonged to everyone, no one. Their peculiar magic was that they seemed to exist at all times.
To publish, maybe, is to borrow from this spontaneity of being.
For the past few months, I've been thinking a lot about the place of publishing in our creative lives -- specifically, in my creative life. I've slowly come to realize that, without meaning to, for a long time -- since graduate school, it seems -- I've been living with this deeply held pressure to justify my creative work somehow, to make it fit into society's structure of money, business, productivity.
But art, by definition, does not fit into neat little boxes.
Maybe that is why it has been such a struggle for me at times to sit down at the computer and put in the writing time: I was trying too hard to cram my creative work into neat little boxes that could be packaged, commodified, sold. I've noticed that, for the past few years, I've muddled through long stretches of time when it feels like I am fighting my writing routine, thrashing against it, moaning to myself about how hard it is, and putting all sorts of pressure on myself. Sort of like a child who hates playing piano but his parents make him practice every day, so he practices for the exact amount of time he's supposed to -- not a minute more. In some slowly building way, writing has become something I have to do, and I lost sight of why I even want to do it in the first place.
Lynn Xu might say I lost my spontaneity of being. I lost track of that peculiar magic that links me to books, to communities, to other writers across time and space.
I found it again in the unlikeliest of places: Facebook.
I know, I know: Facebook is to a writer's productivity like sugar-and-caffeine-soaked soda is to a toddler's naptime. Not the most conducive. However, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed the other day when I spotted a post by a writer acquaintance of mine. I met her at a conference years ago and, though we have not seen each other face-to-face since then, I have read and admired her work ever since. I especially remember how she treated me with such respect, even though I was the youngest faculty member by decades at this particular conference. She treated me like a peer, and I loved her for that.
Her Facebook post was short and easy to scroll past, in the blur of cat snapshots and food snapshots and baby snapshots and election-related news articles. But something about it made me pause. What is she up to these days? I wondered, thinking perhaps this would be about a new piece being published somewhere, or one of her books winning another award.
But no. In this post, just a few sentences long, she was saying goodbye.
She explained that she had cancer and the tumors were steadily growing, outpacing her chemotherapy treatments, and that she was heading into hospice care soon. She stated, without a trace of self-pity, that she had enjoyed a rich and wonderful life and was grateful for all of the people and all of the love. She even apologized, writing that she knew everyone was hoping for better news.
I sat there, staring at my computer, utterly stunned and speechless and devastated.
This writer has published many beautiful and touching and important works during her time here. And yet, I am sure that she still has many more stories left inside her. Stories she won't have time to tell before her time runs out.
And in that moment, it struck me with force, like a punch in my gut: none of us will have enough time before our time runs out.
I could live for a thousand years, and I know I would still die with stories left inside me, ideas germinating in my head, tales left to tell.
For now, all I have is this day. This moment, here at my computer, translating the scattered thoughts in my head into words on this screen. This moment is all that I have guaranteed to me.
How valuable! How important!
Why waste a single writing day? Why grumble and groan about how hard writing is? It doesn't matter if it's hard -- it is still a singular and precious gift. And I do not want to squander an hour that I could be writing with excuses and interruptions and chores. No longer. Not anymore.
It is a fact that I am going to die with stories left inside me. So until that comes to pass, it is my task, my journey, my calling, to let as many of the important stories out of me as possible. To share them with the world. To access the magical spontaneity of being that I am lucky to be a part of.
Lately, I have been feeling so much freer in my writing. I am trying to distance myself from publishing and worrying about readers or the future. Instead, I am sinking all of my energy into the process. For me, I am learning, the work itself is what is sustaining. The work itself is what matters.
Rather than "clocking in" at my writing desk each day, now I sit down at my computer because I want to hang out with my characters for a bit. I want to listen to what they have to tell me, to discover what they have to share with me -- and to unpack the beatings of my own heart, too.
I write for myself, and also for all the other writers who are no longer able to write.
I write because I am part of a creative tradition, and that is a truly glorious gift.
I write because these words, words that I wring out of my soul and onto the page one by one, slowly and steadily and joyfully and angrily and fiercely and rapidly and tiredly and passionately... these words are my legacy.