With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I’m back home from leading another writing retreat. I’m back in the back rooms of language, where deals are made and the real business of writing is conducted. Can I appeal today to those disputatious factions inside me to move from sentence to sentence in a real spirit of bipartisanship — or will my truculent inner editor threaten a filibuster every time I try something new? How entrenched he is in the halls of power.
Readers sometimes ask how much I edit my own writing. I edit until each paragraph has lost the ten pounds it gained over the winter. I edit until each sentence can survive three days in the wilderness on its own. My father taught me to look at a sentence and, if it didn’t deserve to live, shoot it between the eyes. Ignore the pleas of the women and children. Take no prisoners, he said.
Why do I idealize the Zen master who sneaks up behind a drowsy student and whacks him with his bamboo staff yet fail to praise my father, who did the same for me? My father wielded his staff and left some bruises. He also taught me to sit up straight. What better reason to bow to him?
Nature, too, is an editor. Isn’t evolution a force that shapes all living things? It’s no surprise, then, that the sentences we struggle to create must climb out of the muck, dragging their tails behind them; stand up; stand tall.
I showed up this morning in a clean white shirt, with a stupid smile on my face, and guess what? The gate was locked, and a sign said that all the writing had been outsourced to China.
Note to self: When the writing isn’t going well, don’t blame it on global warming or anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism. Don’t complain that with more people writing today there must be fewer words to go around. Don’t sign a petition that says the Muse is dead, or spread rumors about her temper tantrums, or try to cause a rift between her and the other goddesses. And when she finally staggers in, her hair unbrushed and her lipstick smeared, don’t ask if she’s been making out with younger, more handsome writers who know just what to whisper and exactly how to touch her and who have made larger donations to her nonprofit foundation and, under the table, to her political-action committee. Don’t ask if size counts.
I slept a full eight hours last night: How luxurious. But I don’t remember any of my dreams. Is this like putting in eight hours at the office with nothing to show for it?
The god of self-improvement pokes me in the chest. Work a little harder, he says. Lose a few pounds. Does my heart know a true god from a false god?
I’m reading another book by another spiritual master. But even when I slake that thirst, a few minutes later I’m thirsty again. Unless I stay awake from moment to moment, it’s water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
I dreamt that I was hanging out with new friends who wanted to get high and have sex all night. They happened to be vampires, but I didn’t hold this against them. They liked me as a person, I believed, and not merely because I had drugs on me and several quarts of blood in me. Now I’m awake, and there aren’t any puncture wounds in my neck, and, with dawn creeping in, those dream vampires have probably called it a night. I suppose they were playing with fire, partying with the editor of a magazine called The Sun. Or maybe they were just demonstrating that vampires and humans really have a lot in common, especially when it comes to a night of rollicking good fun. Maybe there’s a lesson here for how Democrats and Republicans can get along, because surely there’s less separating the Left and the Right than there is separating the living and the living dead. Maybe we can all watch the sun come up and marvel that we’re creatures of flesh and blood. Maybe we can remember that when we’re overwhelmed by suffering, we cry real tears; that when we fall in love with someone, we don’t immediately sink our teeth into them; that we have no supernatural abilities but merely human strengths and human weaknesses; that each of us was born, and each of us will die; and that if we can’t bury at least some of our differences, the twenty-first century will bury us.
Darkness doesn’t resent the dawn for making such a racket. Darkness settles back on its haunches and waits. Darkness knows the light will exhaust itself by evening.
Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Is the world on fire? The world is always on fire. A parent dies, a friend, a cat. The doctor calls with the Impossible News, and rioting breaks out in the neighborhoods of the heart. Bernie makes off with the money. The ceiling fan stops turning on the hottest night of the year.
It’s not just another Monday. It’s not just another planet circling a medium-sized star. It’s not just another cat on my lap. It’s not just another invitation to wake up.