plot

petitions of the faithful

I spend the first few minutes of my writing time dithering. I open screens and close them. Open books and close them. I am aware that time is running out. 

I want to understand what I am trying to do, although the poets - or at least the ones I love best - say that no one knows, really, what they are doing. I know that I am here, and I know that I am constantly putting words down and thinking about making things - ideas, images, sounds - with words. I hear them in my head. I hear a kind of singing. It is a kind of music to me. 

I go through the notes I have scattered on my desk, pick up one, write toward it. Here is what I write:

the mole on the side of your neck
music that is too loud for the morning; tea that has gone cold

the sock with a hole just big enough for a toe to slip through
which one does not matter
or it does
I can’t remember what matters anymore

I am thinking about your neck
It is a shrine
It is a sandwich
It is the color
we call white

You are not as handsome as I remember
But you have this neck

I move through the days. At times it seems as though I am walking through a dreamscape, shrouded in mist. Where am I? How did I find myself here, how did I come to be here, in this place, in this mist? 

Then, there are days when the sun is bright on me and I move with a kind of confidence, with a kind of grace. The days of sun and grace and of knowing, in the smallest possible ways one can know a thing, with the smallest bit of certainty that can still be called certainty and go forward in tiny steps. Incremental. The pace is glacial, we often say. Say it aloud: The pace is glacial. It has a lovely sound. 

I have lost myself, a little in this process. The word process sounds forced. I use it all the time. I have lost myself a little. Like I am floating all the time. It is one of the things, I think, that is useful about trying to make a thing. I will not say art. It is hard even to say useful. But bewilderment seems a valuable state. When I start setting down words, I do not know where it will end. When I start setting down whole passages, I do not know where they will end. I am living this act of making marks and making shapes or trying. 

I am living this continuous act of trying. 

I stayed up late last night to finish a task. I had been putting it off for a long time. It didn’t take long when I finally sat down to do it, and as I usually do, when I have put a thing off and then I have done it, I wondered why had I put it off for so long? Was I afraid it would be difficult? Was I afraid it would be boring?

I started writing it. I would give myself short breaks. The breaks would be to go downstairs and take one load of laundry out of the washer and put it in the dryer. And take the things that were in the dryer and put them in a basket. And bring the basket upstairs. And fold the things. Or hang them. 

Then I would go back to writing it. And it didn’t take long. Not much more than an hour. Certainly not as long as two. And then it was done. 

And my laundry was done, too. 

I say I am not interested in plot. I have said this so long. I keep saying it. I think it is true.

Yesterday, I made a grand statement over dinner: “Plot is a market-driven concern, not an artistic one,” I said. I was leaning back in my chair. And then I leaned forward, as I often do, as if to signal that I think I am saying an important thing. 

And what often happens after I say a bold thing, is that I follow it with several tentative things. Like I have puffed myself up to say the bold thing, then slowly deflate. My ambitions are modest. 

Except perhaps when they are not. 

Meanwhile, my sister only just had her power returned. They have been living for many days in the dark. She tells me about how she makes breakfast wearing a miner’s cap that she bought on a whim. I picture her, tiny woman, in her bathrobe and her miner’s cap, standing at the stove, making pancakes. “They all laughed at me when I wanted to buy it,” she says. “But no one is laughing now.”

I am not a religious person. She is, my sister. Now. She prints out bible passages on slips of paper and tapes them around her house – over the kitchen sink, on the mirror in the bathroom. Many of them concern anger. Controlling it. 

When we were children, she had a quiz for her catechism class. It was a fill-in-the-blank. She had memorized the answers but not the questions, so when she asked me to help her study, she handed me the sheet with the answers filled in and before I had a chance to ask a question, she blurted: “holy spirit; holy spirit; talking to God.”

What if the questions are in a different order? I asked.

She said: “Talking to God, holy spirit, holy spirit.”

I lost God a long time ago. Or he lost me. We don’t talk about whose decision it was to leave. Best to let some realities sink in quietly. So what I think I am trying to say is that I do not have God and he does not have me, but what I have is this daily practice of sitting here at this desk, listening to the odd, staccato music trying to take shape in my head. Sounds and words and phrases conjured here staring out the window. Or driving down North Main Street past the fire station. Or stepping out of the shower. Or standing in line at the grocery store check-out. Or folding laundry in my basement. And this – writing these things down, sometimes speaking them aloud – is a kind of prayer. 

In that I am brought here by blind faith in what I cannot know. In that it is a way to organize my disappointment. In that it gives me the tiniest bit of grace to go forward to the day. And again to another and another. 

The petitions of the faithful: Hear us.

Holy spirit, holy spirit, talking to God. 

song of the king

I am distracted. The mind wanders. I lose focus. 

I am thinking about fragility, about brokenness. 

Once, I saw a performance in a small black box theatre in which one dancer drew long chalk lines across the stage while another followed several feet behind, writing fragments of text between the lines. The man then drew a chalk circle downstage and stood in it. Then, he bent at the waist and rested an egg in the small of his back. He walked the lines he had drawn with the egg balanced there. It was odd and it was beautiful. We held our breath. Halfway across the stage, the egg dropped with a quiet thud to the floor. A collective gasp. The egg.

There were four of us and it was late. They led us to a long table in the far corner of the deck, closest to the beach. We had already had cocktails upstairs and at the newcomers reception and then again in the lobby bar in various configurations. One group would disperse and then another would form and now, we were the last, the devoted. It is likely we were quite loud. There were two waiters attending to us - the lateness of the hour I suppose and also the bit of spectacle we must have made, four laughing women, our lipstick fading, the straps of tank tops showing now that our blouses and wraps had slipped from our shoulders. We drank frozen margaritas and told stories about the places we had been before. In the distance, the pitch dark sea. Our voices big and laughing. We stayed out until we were certain we had extracted every last pleasure the night could yield.

Anyone can love the perfumed days of summer, but I have come to love the cold dark mornings best. They are quiet, save for the radiator knocks. The sky moves through its early morning palette of blues. 

This morning, a gray pallor to the brown lawn suggests frost. There is a slight, occasional wind. It makes the tree branches shiver. 

M. returned late last night. The week ahead will be a busy one. I have fallen behind. There is never enough time. 

I have come to an uneasy place in the writing. The fragments come and I lay them out, one after the other. I number them. Occasionally, I will move them around, change their order.

I am preoccupied by a number of themes - brokenness, fragility, loss. Hunger. There are others, I am sure. I am haunted by this sense that I must drive this thing forward to some sort of conclusion and when I start turning words like conclusion over in my mind, I become paralyzed. Exploration? Yes. Absorption, obsession? Yes. Momentary suspension of grief, of despair? Yes, yes, yes. Conclusion? Emphatically no. 

A few years ago, I met a dear friend of mine met for breakfast in a little cafe in a part of town I rarely go. I don’t know why we went there - perhaps it was soon after it opened. It was nearly empty on the weekday morning we met and we sat at a table in the corner, lingered. We were talking about writing. I was lamenting, as I often am, the passage of time. The year before, she had enrolled in a graduate program in Boston, but soon after the semester began, she withdrew. Her family situation is a complicated one. She explained that she was needed at home. She gave up the apartment she was renting near campus and returned home. She never shared with me the details of her decision and I did not press her, but I remember being tremendously disappointed on her behalf. 

In my limited-attention-span way, I move from writing to reading one thing and then another, to listening to music and writing down lyrics, to searching for lyrics; to watching television or at least, flipping through channels; to scrolling through screens online and back to reading, back to writing, back to texting (rarely sexting); trying to read, trying to write, trying to hold the sounds of my family waking up and making their way down the stairs in one part of my head while at the same time clinging desperately to a line or a phrase or even a word or two that for whatever reason has whispered itself to me and asked me to remember it. 

These words, these phrases will come to me at inopportune moments. In the shower or driving to work. Over dinner. In a staff meeting. As often as I can, I write them down on whatever scrap of paper I can find. I throw the scraps in my purse over the course of the day and then when I am next at my desk, I take try to make some sense of them. Here is what I had this morning:

  • sadness
  • fire/burn CD
  • french audiotapes
  • I think we are still talking about writing
  • blossom should not ever fly from bee to bee to bee
  • turn the music up louder

The blossom line is from the musical “The King and I.” It is a song the king sings defending his polygamy. I looked up the line, which I had misremembered. Here it is:

A girl must be like a blossom
With honey for just one man.
A man must be like honey bee
And gather all he can.
To fly from blossom to blossom
A honey bee must be free,
But blossom must not ever fly
From bee to bee to bee.

I am running out of time. This is the way it is. Recently, I sent some poems to a well-respected colleague, a poet and teacher who knew me as a fiction writer, years ago. I explained, this is what I am doing these days, these fragments. It is difficult to sustain anything longer. He wrote back and kindly, generously validated these “bursts of text,” given my life and its attendant demands. 

My life is getting in the way of my life. These are my words, not his. 

In the times I turned away from the screen while writing this (and there were many), I found a few additional scraps:

  • a dimension of performance
  • lottery
  • mole on the side of his neck 
  • where a thing lands, where it touches down, even if only for a moment

this is not a love story

I stay up too late - sleepless, thrashing. The heat sputters on through the old pipes, a hiss and cough of steam. I think of all the things I had hoped to accomplish, so few of them done. I consider rising, descending the stairs, switching on lights, making tea. In the end, I force myself to lie still, slow my breathing. 

When I rise it is still dark. The room is cool. I wrap a blanket around myself and sit at my desk and stare at the glowing screen. 

M. and I talk about 40 again with his birthday approaching. I know now what you were feeling, he says. I think now I understand.

He says: It is like getting to the crest of a hill. I look down, he says, and I can see what is below. And the path that leads to it. At that we are on it. Neither of us says aloud, though we think it: Inevitable. Neither of us says aloud: Relentless.

I write these scenes. I put these lovers on a beach on a gray afternoon. He leads her down from the house blindfolded. She can hear the sound of the waves on the shore. A cacaphony of gulls. The smell of salt air and of eelgrass. I let him undress her there, a fine mist on their skin. I write her silent, save for her quick breaths and the gasp that escapes her lips as he enters. I write him silent too, but he whispers to her, his hot breath on her ear. We cannot hear what he says, but we can guess at it. We have ourselves known these urgent whispers. We have ourselves spoken them. 

They pass the hours like this. Binding and unbinding. 

In the end, there is only sadness. I write them embracing on the damp sand like the last of the damned. I write the cruelty that settles in on them now that they have known the ways in which each is broken. 

I let them sleep lightly. I write the air turning cold. I wake them still hungry but now they are fast and brutal as evening falls. His fingers leave bruises. She marks him with her teeth.

The library in the town where I spent my teenage years had a carousel of paperback romance novels in the main reading room. Their tattered covers depicted windswept heroines on horseback. They were white-necked, their thin dresses blowing open. The men had piercing eyes and broad chests. Some were dark-haired and brooding: These were the ones I loved best. 

I read them methodically, compulsively; worked through the titles until I could turn the carousel a complete rotation and not see an unfamiliar face. 

What was it I was looking for in those brittle, yellowed pages? What did I find?

For a time, I thought I knew these stories so well that I could write them effortlessly, and I tried and failed repeatedly for years. I am reminded of this now as I struggle with plot. It is a simple idea: rising action, conflict, resolution, but this offers no solace or no real instruction as I sit staring at a page full of fragments. 

In the end, in the windswept romances, there is the promise of the future, of what they have overcome some obstacle to achieve. In the end, the future lies glittering before them – an endless horizon where everything is possible because nothing has been chosen. The future is unformed and shapeless. A bright abstraction yet to be drawn. 

Why am I drawn to the tragic? Why do I write scene after scene in which moments of beauty are so steeped in sadness? And why is there no resolution? Why do I insist on withholding resolution?

I think I am an optimist. By that I mean: No one writes, no one creates with any seriousness who is not, in some small way, an optimist. Or at least, one who believes that our human struggles matter. Or at least one who believes that despite the steady report of indications to the contrary, there is beauty and meaning and hopefulness, in fact that at times we are even giddy with a surfeit of it, in each of our own small lives. 

Perhaps that is its own kind of resolution, provides its own kind of momentum: That we hold each other, even though we know that we are dying. That we walk upright even when our hearts are breaking. 

I drive my daughter to school and we talk about The Walking Dead. Misery follows misery and each episode is more brutal than the last. The things that give comfort are taken away, one by one. Each flicker of hope is extinguished before it can burn bright enough to cast real light. How can they go on? we ask ourselves. 

My daughter says: “I would give up.” I say: “I would too.”

And we laugh. And we make our zombie jokes. And we touch each other’s hands and arms as the traffic moves slowly forward. Because what else, after all, is there to do?