In the fall of last year I received this note from someone who falls into that grey area between former real-world acquaintance and current online-world friend:
You write relentlessly because you can’t not write.
You run to the point of injury and exhaustion.
You unburden yourself on strangers who are allowed to yell mean stuff at you if they feel like it.
I am curious because I want to be like you (obv).
Is there a “fun” part?
Our exchanges have deepened through the electronic medium. So I didn’t mind her asking these questions. The problem was, I didn’t know how to answer them. I needed to walk around with them for a few months.
I started to write relentlessly just over a year ago. A whole lot of things came together to drive this change:
First, I realized that I was 47 years old. Most of the women in my family live to be around 95-99 years old. Should I follow in their genetic footsteps, that means I’m at the point of no return on the temporal map. My life is at least half over. Turning around was never an option anyway, but now even if I could turn around there’d be no point in doing so because the way back is as long as is the way forward. This is what’s quaintly known as a “midlife crisis.” I was already heading into a period of questioning what I was doing with my creative life (which wasn’t much until recently), and exploring some avenues for where to put my voice.
Then my father died in a car crash and the crisis dropped down a few gears and really took off. A year of that and other sources of tumult (and joy — it wasn’t all bad) combined with a new, somewhat abandoned approach to making life decisions. I followed signs, listened to hunches, went with the flow. This year of disaster and discovery has beget a new year that’s starting with a quiet post mortem, a “what happened there?” process of questioning. This is still going on. No activity, belief or relationship is escaping its scrutiny. Everything’s up for renegotiation.
What happened there? What happened was the blooming of something I hadn’t ever had before: an urgency to live.
What does it mean, though, to live?
To me, living has several facets: doing, creating, experiencing, understanding, connecting, hurting, striving. I don’t have a present tense verb handy for “feeling good.” But feeling good is up there too.
We carry in us a handful of memories of experiences during which we felt the intensity of being alive at its greatest. These are the moments when we feel all the parts of being alive coalescing and peaking together. I would call this “ecstasy.” Two of those ecstatic experiences for me were related to running, one of them in a competitive race. So I run in order to try to feel that again, if I’m lucky. Sex combined with love gave me a few other ecstasies. A hike in Switzerland gave me another. Scuba diving another.
Are you seeing a pattern? If you want to live, you have to get out and do things to augment the thinking.
I spent all my life muddling along as a writer, trying to write fiction and failing. I was also always drawn to performing, but way too terrified to ever try it.
Then I started taking my writing seriously, except I stopped beating my head against a fictional wall and decided that my own life might make better subject matter. Stupidly, I thought that writing about my own life would be easier than writing fiction. It’s not. But it does work more often. Then I threw myself into the fire of performing.
I believe in myself as a writer much of the time (between the frequent crises of confidence). When writing is going well, it approaches being a peak experience. I don’t know that it’s ever “fun.” But it feels really good when I solve a bunch of problems and end up holding a piece of writing that I think is as good as it can be, something that I would want to read or hear.
Performing is still difficult for me. But even that is an improvement, as it was not just difficult but terrifying until very recently. There are brief moments when I’m performing when I can let go of all the judgments I have about myself and the self-consciousness and the deranged rat that’s running frantic loops around my skull’s periphery — and I can feel that I might sort of know what the hell I’m doing. We’re talking mere instances here. Once every few months, maybe. But it’s enough to keep me working at it and coming back for more.
Performing is a perilous dance for me, one that runs along a dangerous edge. The people who can yell mean stuff at me are key to my development as a person, creatively and otherwise. I need those people, that potential for their meanness (or, more likely, their indifference), because I won’t get that by just writing. What they ultimately provide is a continuous lesson that while it’s gratifying to get validation from other people, it’s also imperative that I learn to not value myself according to how those other people are reacting.
Getting back to the whole “urgency to live” epiphany. Maybe some people are lucky enough to have acquired this early. Maybe it didn’t require a disastrous loss of some kind. I look around me and I don’t see a lot of people living with a sense of urgency. They’re worried, yep. But that’s not the same thing. I’m glad I have it now, however. And it’s not fundamentally about fear. It’s not “I could die tomorrow, so…”. It’s really not that at all. It’s a quiet acknowledgment of the fact that our time is finite, as is our energy. If you have ideas, now’s the time to work on them. The ecstacy is in the striving, the little achievements, the knowledge that you’re not squandering what you’ve been given in terms of time and talent. It’s never too late. Truly. It’s never too late.
Is that the “fun” part? This is the closest I’ll get.