With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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In March, 1981, I vow never to be an “employee” again. I want to write for a living, to watch it become more than the daily discipline of my journal, to send completed pieces to a public that will pay me to write more. But I need a front, some marketable skill, some commodity that can be bought and sold more easily than my writing, to finance such a freedom.
I choose the firewood cutting business first. I advertise for a partner, find one. She cuts and I haul. Everything imaginable goes wrong except the worst, “the accident,” and together, we learn how to avoid the dull edge of tiredness that becomes so dangerous; how to retrieve a crippled chainsaw tightly sandwiched in the center of a large tree; how to stack wood well; how to tell hardwood from soft. We become close friends and quit cutting when the temperature soars to the high eighties in the early mornings. We’ll sell wood in the fall, we say.
Then I try the socks. Rosie is the biggest sock seller in the California flea markets. When I say I’m interested in her business, she says she’ll send me enough merchandise to keep my tables full. A truck delivers five cartons of Mickey Mouse socks, women’s knee highs, hiking socks, soccer socks, super socks (terry cloth lined! sanitized to resist foot odor!). My hesitations disappear before Rosie’s generosity. The textile mills here can’t supply me with the variety Rosie will front me for free. (“Pay me when you can,” she says.) I’ve never tried to sell anything. “But everybody needs socks,” says Rosie.
Excited about playing store, I pack the car at five in the morning, destined for unknown territory, the fairgrounds as exotic as a Middle Eastern marketplace peopled with hustlers, little old ladies blanketed in rolls of fat, selling second-hand doll babies for five cents, ten cents, a dollar. It is the land of deals, where a dime buys me a sixty-year-old book about witchcraft in Africa, a wickless lantern, a deck of Tarot cards. I set up my booth in the 90 degree heat and feel preposterous as sockless passersby ignore my tables.
An ancient black woman passes my booth repeatedly, with a half dozen excited grandchildren strung out behind her like ducklings. She has no money to buy, but crows at the top of her voice like a barker advertising every item she passes: “PURTY bronze, PURTY watermelons, PURTY chestadrawers!” She catches my smile and wails, “PURTY socks! Them is PURTY socks, YEA!”
The vendor next to me doesn’t speak for the first hour. He sits in the back of his battered blue van whispering to his dog, getting her water, scratching her head. He is in his sixties, weather-beaten and sweaty, swatting flies with a rolled up newspaper.
“Where’d you get that wicker sofa?” I ask.
“Got it in niggertown for $15.”
I flinch when he says “niggertown” and I see him see and he says it again to prove it’s okay to say. He tells me my socks are priced too high for this crowd, that’s why I’m not selling any. For the rest of the afternoon, he tries to talk all of his customers into buying some of my socks. I pack the car, discouraged, at mid-afternoon. The sock saga is over.
I turn to photography for a potential profit. It has teased me all spring like a ripening plum, the most obviously developed skill I have, next to writing. Paper, chemicals, a light meter, endless rolls of film gobble up a few hundred dollars. I hardly notice. I work in the darkroom for five and six hours at a time, soaked in perspiration, oblivious. I have found a shortcut to writing. Pictures are immediate gratification, crisp and finite, the blacks and whites defying my tendency to fog up everything with feelings.
I get odd jobs that pay for my materials, and the occasional extra $20 or $30 that is profit is an unexpected prize. I am not good enough to support myself as a professional photographer; I knew it all along but was greedy to pretend for awhile. My technical knowledge is terrible; my mind doesn’t retain numbers or the details of clinical perfection: paper grades, exposure times, filters, perfectly prepared chemicals. And the defensive wizardry of a war on dust bores me to tears.
By early July, something has run its course. I have filled some quota of failure. Certain delusions have been dealt with, and I am glad. Now I know what not to do. But a depression settles down on me, deep-seated and painful. My waters are dammed but ready to wash me towards some vital intersection with grace if they will only break. I try not to face my fascination with failure, with the safety of defeat, with the safety of keeping long fantasized goals “in the future,” out of the now.
I deliberately do everything I once listed not to do when depressed. Oversleep. Watch t.v. Avoid friends who might help. See all the old authority figures who keep waiting for me to fulfill their fantasies, not mine. I decide to “be good,” to get a job. I Uncle-Tom the outdated parent in me who believes punishment is appropriate, and then damn myself for doing it.
I know I am playing out an old and familiar pattern that is ready to die. Its potency has little to do with whether or not I sell any socks, become a highly paid photographer, or sell a lot of firewood. It has to do with something else and I suddenly feel stunted, immobilized with the tension before the storm.
I run into a friend who asks how I am. “Depressed about money,” I say. “Doing any writing?” he asks, innocently. “That is the real issue,” I casually answer. As if I’ve touched the root of a sore, my body involuntarily lurches. I drive off, pull over to the curb, and cry convulsively with relief. When I get home, I touch the typewriter and it immediately begins: “Illusory barriers, you were perceiving unreal limits. They aren’t there.”
Suddenly everything is obvious. I have avoided my greatest skill, conspired to put off “the writing” until I become financially secure, until after I get my house built, until after I get an electric typewriter. I won’t betray myself again.
I call a friend late at night to tell her what I want to do, how determined I am, and how afraid, because writing is the hardest work I know.
I tell her my journal is not enough. It involves no effort anymore, it is an achieved discipline which writes itself, an opened passage between the conscious and unconscious mind. It is porous, invisible, the something wordless at my center from which every story I might publish springs. “I feel like I’m at the edge of a precipice, and I have to jump because the earth has fallen away behind me. It’s now or never.”
Does she understand? This friend is my mother; she has never written a story, a book, only newspaper “facts,” nothing of herself. But I first learned to see through her eyes, and they are the eyes of a writer.
“Do you still want to write?” I ask.
“I have to try. I don’t think I’ll ever be happy until I do,” she says. The earth has fallen away behind the both of us, and I have a sister; something is equalized between us.
I feel ragged, weary, as if all the pieces are finally in place. I am ready to begin again, to fumble in the dark for the meaning that will marry itself to words, to listen to the audience in my heart whose applause is only audible if I keep a precarious balance, an edge of uncertainty, the only security I know.
Elizabeth Rose Campbell