It's taken me some thought to put a name to the new feeling that's come to me ever since I started preparing to write to you.
What I've decided to call it: the feeling of the first day of residency. I mean an artist residency, a workshop, or any scenario where I've come to a new place, for a certain period of time, to do the kind of work that sustains me and to be around people who are doing the same.
That very first day, right after I've put my bags down in my dorm room and gazed at the view out my window (thinking, This is home, for the next week/month); when I have a free hour or two until the first scheduled event, and I'm ready to explore the campus with the people I just met on the ride over from the airport—
It's a feeling of, above all else, openness. I'm picturing a spring or summer residency—because it's sunny out. I've just left my normal life behind, with its routines, its rules, its tasks, its people, including even myself—who I'm known to be, what I like and dislike. I'm not about to turn down anyone who wants to be my friend. Not today. And on this first day, it feels so obvious that I have all the time in the world. It feels right to spend an entire morning pulling books off the library shelves at random and flipping through them. To notice individual trees, birdsong, to play with a beetle, to have lines and fragments come to mind spontaneously and feel compelled to write them down in my notebook (maybe a new notebook!), which never seems to occur to me in "normal" life. Here, today, spending time like that doesn't feel wasteful. It feels rich. (And I have so many days to spend here!)
On this first day, I'm surprised to find myself open to any and all recommendations from my new friends, of authors and music and movies and art, including things I'd already decided I didn't like. (And of course we have time to be talking about these things—that's what we came here to do.) Maybe I said before that I couldn't get into Anne Carson or old paintings, but a couple of lines my new friend knows by heart, or a rapturous description of the pattern of shadows in a little-known 18th-century painting, are enough to sway me today. Everything can be forgiven, everything reconsidered. The only thing I know for sure is that, for the first time in the longest time, a vast space of possibility stretches out ahead of me. A space totally empty of plans or predictions, containing nothing that can be extrapolated from my past via simple incremental calculations. A space that doesn't contain the words, "I don't have time for that," or the words, "This will never work."
Up until now, I've been fixated on productivity, which is essentially scarcity. Time is always running out, so I need to triage, prioritize, try to get everything done. So that tomorrow, I'll have time to... get everything done. I would forget that things originally had an end goal, a purpose, other than to get done. The only problem is: when would that ever change? Chances are what's not enough today will still be not enough on my last day. And I don't want to die like that—still trying, in vain, to check everything off the list.
One secret is that quitting all one's obligations doesn't resolve this at all, as people who still feel stressed for time while on vacation can attest. It just gives you more time to spend feeling unsatisfied. The only thing that can change it for good is, not having more or less time in absolute terms, but the feeling of abundance, of richness, of more than enough—the feeling of the first day of residency. (A "returning to a present tense," as C. put it.) How do I find my way back to that first day, every day? Such that even in the space of ten minutes, an hour, or a Sunday, I can get back to being open to possibility, back to having all the time in the world. How do I return to a present tense?
I don't know, except I'm convinced that you are holding a piece of the answer. Or the way I feel as I write this to you. Somehow, when it comes to writing you, there is always enough time. There's enough time to do it slowly, and well, and to get lost in it and take all day and the next day, if that's what happens. There's enough time to pull a book off the shelf to look for the quote that you've reminded me of, and enough time to go for a walk, so I can come back and tell you what the trees look like today. It puts into contrast what no longer feels important to spend a lot of time on—namely, everything I thought was so important before now. Crucially, I don't write to you to get it done. I write to you because... because I like who I am while I'm doing it.
Writing to you isn't productive, except that it's one of the only things that feels like it actually matters, so, in fact, it is. A day spent writing to you is a day well spent. And a day well spent is something I've been longing for all my life.
(Annie Dillard: "This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you."*)
There's something else that always seems easier on the first day of residency. It has to do with starting to feel again, where for a long time there has been mostly numbness. A re-education in how to feel: this, too, comes with openness and with an abundance of time. It's mostly done through mirroring. I expose myself, a little bit at a time, to another person's suffering, large or small, as expressed through their being or through what they've made. Their being-moved moves the corresponding place in me. It calls it by name and wakes it up.
Along with the return of feeling, the return of the belief that I can put this onto the page: that to put this onto the page is both simpler than I've been making it out to be, and that it's worth doing.
As a teenager, I remember being able to feel more purely than I do now, as if I were a being consisting entirely of raw emotion leaking out all over the place. I didn't know how to write it down, not that that stopped me from trying. (What drove me to try? Instinct, is the only answer I can think of. I had no goals, extrinsic or otherwise. Back then I wrote as some kids doodle who have no one to show it to.) What emerged was a bunch of little attempted structures glued together from clichés borrowed from song lyrics and whatever else I was familiar with. It wasn't effective for getting across what I felt, but it was sincere. I was composing as best I could using snippets of the language that I had available to me.
Somewhere between then and now, I learned a bit of the craft of writing. But along with that craft, I seem to have picked up somewhere along the way the idea that revealing myself in the way I tried to when I was younger—that there was something shameful in that, in the nakedness. That it's more refined to approach the core of things in as indirect a manner as you can manage. To obfuscate. Writing became the construction of elaborate puzzles that could circle around my truth and hint at it without giving too much away. (I don't claim that someone explicitly gave me that idea. Only that I picked it up at some point.)
What haunts me now is wondering to what extent (if any) my education in writing may have distorted my experience, in the name of literature. In other words: whether I ever disowned something I really felt, because disowning it would make for a more impressive piece. Whether my whole way of feeling was changed by such a lens (changed by equating, for instance, "what's worth feeling" with "what's worth publishing"). Any such distortions would have superseded memory and, in time, become memory. So I'm not sure I can know now whether it ever happened.
What if the solution is to subtract, not to add? Not to fill in for (or paper over) the failures of my teenaged expression by adding layers of sophistication over it or by borrowing from ever more prestigious sources... but rather, to remove those conventions and filters that already marked my earliest work. What I want is to get back that completely unjudgmental perception I had as a small child, of my own inner life, perception that didn't filter out all experience that failed to fit into some recognizable schema. Maybe just the opposite: I want to pay attention to what doesn't fit. And I want that ability I had as a child, to give you such direct access to it. Some sort of transparency. Or at least translucence. Yes, that's it—I want to be translucent again. Maybe it can be that simple.
Necessary to translucence, for me, is to have someone else who is capable of perceiving it.
Once, in college, I was trying to write an essay for class. It was a painful, impossible essay, not least because the prompt was intended to be halfway impossible to begin with—it required you to make connections between a pair of readings that were, on the face of it, not related to each other at all. I saw something between the readings, but I couldn't express it, it lacked any defined shape even in my own mind. I turned in a draft I knew was a failure, already cringing as I walked to my feedback meeting.
Of the draft, my teacher said to me: "This feels like a math problem, in which you've shown all of the answers and none of the work." I wanted to cry when she said that—at first from hurt, but then afterwards, from relief.
I didn't know anyone wanted to see the work.
That became my mantra: Show the work. Math problems I understand well. A great proof is a journey, a walk. I meet you where the trail begins, and I'm going to take you somewhere new. Showing the work isn't "spelling it out" in the insulting sense; it takes steps to go from one place to another, and we simply have an understanding that I'll take you through the same steps that I had to take, I won't skip ahead to where you can't follow. That's our pact: I'm walking with you. And just as in a great proof, if I take you through all the steps, we can get to places that seemed impossible to reach from the outset.
(Of course, sometimes what you have is a set of disparate points, with no path through them that you can discern. Then the work becomes to represent the points without imposing a path onto them. The hard part is to know which scenario you're in, I think.)
The final draft of that essay that I turned in, if you're wondering, was one in which I knew and my teacher knew that I had done exactly what she'd asked, to the fullest. Knowing that there was even one person who wanted to see the work was what changed it. For that one person, I was capable of going to whatever lengths it took to channel the undefined something in my mind and distill it into a path.
That someone wants to see the work—to an artist it might be the equivalent of being loved. To write as if you are loved, then; to write as if you are safe.
Years later, I was in Barcelona, suffering from a strange form of subconscious, imminent heartbreak. I was totally unaware that there was anything wrong at all, until a waitress came over to me in a cafe where I had sat down to have lunch. Typically, I think, she would come up to you and say Digame, as a way of asking for your order. For me, she instead used the literal English translation and said, in a kind voice: Tell me.
Something inside me broke, then, faced with a stranger looking into my eyes and saying those words. Of course, all she wanted was my lunch order, which I gave her, and the moment passed. But what that moment showed me was how badly I had been waiting for someone to sense that I had something I needed to tell, and for them to want to hear about it, and to ask to hear about it. So when I write, I write as if someone who loves me has pulled me aside to say, Tell me.
You are that someone.
I once wrote a letter to an artist in which I said: If you ever write or make something and you think, "If anyone ever sees this, I will just die." I hope you'll go and show it to someone immediately. I hope you have someone you can show something like that to.
Seen that way, maybe it's easy to know what to write: it's exactly everything I feel I couldn't possibly. But with you here, maybe more is possible now than before.
Lately I have near me a collection of Emily Dickinson's letters, poems, and letter-poems to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Emily's sister-in-law and quite possibly the love of her life. The collection is titled after an instruction Emily wrote on the flap of one of her letters: open me carefully.* And that's what I ask of you. Today, tomorrow, and in the days to come.
"...Spend the afternoon..." Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, ed. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith.