What Happened?

At first I was planning to open with, ‘Yes, it’s been that busy around here.’ 

 

And it had been! It really had. Solid weeks of in-house work. Many trips back and forth from Peekskill. Conversations about Bowen’s job searches for the fall and maybe for the summer. (Did he really want to apply to the University of Kazakhstan?)

 

Then, by the end of March, it had slowed down. The deadlines got met. The in-house work waned. I spent more and more time sitting quietly in Peekskill. But I still wasn’t writing a blog post. I wasn’t writing anything but e-mails and Facebook statuses.

 

It took me a while to catch on to that. I certainly meant to let people know more about what it’s like to write at Pendle Hill, what a great place it is to use as a personal retreat, and how my second writing sojourn had gone. I even had pictures to post. But, no. The good intentions didn’t overcome the non-blogging. I was gone, Absent With Out Leave. 

 

‘Oh,’ I said, rousing myself in early April, ‘Look at what I’m doing . . . sitting here . . . doing nothing.’ So I got a couple of sentences down on a draft in TextEdit, and that was enough of that.

 

By the middle of April I knew nothing further was going to happen. I knew enough about myself to know that the thing to do was surrender to my blog silence. Invite it in. Make it a welcome guest. Serve it a cup of tea–in a variation on a Zen parable I once heard about dealing with despair.

 

I’ve been told that the American Sign Language sign for ‘Quaker’ is made by clasping the hands in front of the belly with fingers interlaced, and then twiddling one’s thumbs. As theological statements go, it’s not bad. One of the gifts of Quaker life is the permission to step aside from taking action for action’s sake. In Quaker life, sitting very still and saying nothing can be the deepest faithfulness. My blog silence and I would sit together and wait. 

 

What has opened to me as my blog and I have communed wordlessly is that I am a binge writer. Not for me the classic model of writing every day. (Or, at least, not yet, anyway. Perhaps it lies ahead.) On my retreat at Pendle Hill in late February I wrote 7,000 words in 72 hours. And they weren’t just any words. They were words that took me through a painful and frightening time of my life when my marriage had ended and I was holding my sanity together with my bare hands in graduate school, as it were. Well, actually, I was holding my sanity together with large doses of Moby-Dick, Norman Mailer, and bourbon.

 

I just interrupted this post to go back to the manuscript and skim through the section I wrote at Pendle Hill in February. I had no idea how I was going to get those wretched times down on paper. All I had was the faith that I would. A couple of times I caught myself censoring and I was able to tell myself to shut up and keep going. My editor (whoever that would prove to be) and I would straighten it out later. It was self-talk that worked.

 

I was soaring when I left Pendle Hill. Soaring and clear, to use a good Quaker word. I had emptied myself of everything. I had sung my muse to sleep.

 

I worked hard straightening out other people’s writing in March. I puttered with words in April (not least of which pastimes was playing online Scrabble and Lexulous). In early May, I waited and listened. But in the past ten days things changed. 

 

First, I had a medical test scare that turned out to be absolutely nothing. Free and clear. However, waiting for the results put me up against my mortality in a way that nothing else has in years. I hope to make good use of that fright. During that time, Phil Gulley happened to ask on his Facebook wall what one thing you wanted to accomplish before you died. It was sobering to see the number of his friends who wanted to write their books. And, finally, last week–as I was emerging from my excursion trip to the Underworld–I had a phone call from a Mailer scholar who told me I had a book to write about Norman. He even laid out its theme for me, a theme he’d heard me voicing in our earlier conversations. 

 

The thing of it is, he’s right. Since 1969 I’ve had the vision of putting everything I know about Mailer’s work into Mirrors of the Moon: A Lunatic Study of Norman Mailer. It’s time. As long as I’m struggling to write one book, I might as well struggle to write two.

 

Long ago . . . in fact in those mad times in grad school . . . I made up a motto for myself: Having trouble? Have a little more trouble and see what happens.