I recently began a writing experiment, because most days it feels like my words are blood, and the world is filled with vampires. They want replies to emails, and responsive words to their words in meetings—sweet precious Christ, the endless meetings—and then there are the documents that must be meticulously edited each time any human with a keyboard gets hold of them, because I am the only person in Washington, D.C., it seems, who knows the difference between “its” and “it’s.”
I write freelance on the side, sometimes because it gives me pleasure and sometimes because it pays some bills—which when you have people who count on you for food is a distinct pleasure of its own that is not to be underestimated.
Every drop of those coin-earning words is non-fiction, which is to say that they are not deliberately contrived. In another sense almost all of them are contrived, even the most deadly earnest of them, because in the case of every word there is someone who wants it to fall a certain way on his ears, or who needs it to embody a certain truth, or more dangerous still, a careful portion of the truth.
These streams of words flowing from my nicked and knotted veins are truths that leave me feeling pale, false. Mostly they are what people need from me, which is not me, but what I have come to be to them. These words craft icons for their readers, icons like the Strategist, the Motivator, the Broken Christian Fundamentally Good at Heart, the Striving Father.
They are channeled and curbed at every turn, because they have a purpose, most of them, and are therefore bound up in a kind of utilitarianism that forever carries with it, in any context, the faint whiff of brimstone.
I resolved some time ago never to write another non-fiction book, and to pour the deepest reservoirs of myself into fiction. But that’s not the experiment, that’s equal parts churlishness and despair.
The real experiment—born of necessity, as are most of my experiments, because I am fundamentally a creature of habit and a coward—is to write longhand in the mornings. This is necessary because I am in the midst of an organizational turnaround, which means every breathing second I ought to be focused on processes and budgets and the ever-pressing challenge of more revenue, more revenue, more blood before the patient dies.
So the only time I find to write, most days, is on a train, or on a jet’s ascent or descent. It’s only minutes, scarce minutes. Such shreds of time I used to abjure, out of a sense that I am a writer, and a writer writes when he is serious about setting down layers of words, which is to say when he’s ready to sit down, open his veins, and let a real bloodletting ensue.
Who scribbles for a scrap of time in a notebook? A dabbler, that’s who.
So perhaps I am a dabbler, or maybe I am like one of those writers who finds himself in a kind of captivity, penning tight-lined verses on toilet paper and the backs of used envelopes.
This captivity is a privileged one, if I am even captive to anything other than myself, because instead of paper scraps I have a journal. A lined journal, no less. When I have a blessed morsel of time I pull it out, along with a fat pen pilfered from some fancy hotel, and I write fiction.
I heard somewhere that the right side of the brain is your creative side, and that longhand writing is a right-brain function, whereas typing is a left-brain function. The left side of your brain, apparently, is the fussy, organized, judgmental side. You can’t write that, it might whisper. What will good Christian people think? And be careful lest your participle dangle.
Writing longhand, and further, writing in the morning, before the left side of your brain has had time to ingest coffee and consult its to-do list, is a way of giving your creative side freer rein. I don’t know yet if that’s true; give me a keyboard and a shot of Jack Daniels when I’m fey, and the words and I unfurl into our rightful places.
I do know that my hand is slower than my brain (this may in itself explain any number of self-destructive behaviors), which means when I’ve got a good bleed going I sometimes dart to the margins to note what the character may do next, or what he wants, or how others will react to him. This slower hand affords me time to think, as the words jet forth, about what comes next.
It’s good to think about what comes next, I’m learning. This is not something I’ve really ever practiced. I’ve made it a skill, in fact, to studiously avoid thinking on what comes next, except in the series of chess games I play to get what I want from whomever has something I want.
But chess is a tight and manipulative game, and here, at what is likely its top dead center, I’m tired of living a tight and manipulative life.
A friend once called it unfurling, and this is what it feels like, in my life and on these newly inked pages, the blood of these words somehow coming into these veins even as they pour out, like circulatory passages, the words part of me but not spirited away from me. What will come of these words and this life I don’t know, but for the first time in a long time, I’m looking forward to finding out.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.