Dear Young Dumb Self,
First, a little context for those brave or bored enough to tumble down this mineshaft with us: you’ve somehow attracted the attention of a literary editor who believes, often more strongly than you do, that you have what it takes. He’s got a few key phrases that he uses to express this belief, and one that he uses to needle or shame or bully you into doing the hard work: “You’ve got to go after this like a barracuda.”
He means: you’ve got to put writing ahead of all else. Ahead of social temptations. Ahead of negotiable needs, like home-cooked meals or a tidy apartment or the pursuit of carnal pleasure. Your barracuda-blood has to flood your veins, propel you from bed early in the morning, weld you to your chair late into the night. You have to want this more than anything, and be ruthless in its pursuit.
So, do you? Do you want this more than anything?
Let’s answer that by examining the last couple of days. This was meant to be a “big push” weekend, wasn’t it? Dominating all other tasks on your to-do list was one towering imperative: FINISH THE DRAFT.
How did you do?
Awake before 7 a.m. on Saturday! An excellent start.
7:00 a.m. – 7:25 a.m.: You can’t move, due to an aversion to disturbing the cat. But you use the time well by initiating a series of visualization exercises (the artist at her desk in a lather of inspiration, feverishly typing, hours whipping past).
7:25 a.m. – 7:45 a.m.: You eat peanut butter off the edge of a knife while reading a story from your Raymond Carver collection (a key ingredient in the writer’s intellectual marinade, according to the editor). And then what? Dishes, tidying up, pausing to glance at—and then thoroughly consume—a Chatelaine article about organizing spice drawers.
7:45 a.m. – 8:10 a.m.: You organize your spice drawer.
8:10 a.m. – 9:00 a.m.: You go to the gym, reasoning that the best way to galvanize the brain is to first deplete the body.
9:00 a.m. – 9:15 a.m.: You stare at your glistening, scalded complexion in the foggy mirror at the Y, post-workout. You attempt a pep talk: Imagine this face printed in a hardcover book under the words “About the Author”! You sigh. In the mirror you watch a ragtag group of little old ladies, naked as babies, slapping barefoot towards the showers after their aqua-fit class, passing behind your reflection like shadows on the cave wall.
9:15 a.m. - 10:30 a.m.: Off to the hair salon. Your stylist, Brigitte, kind and generous with evergreen fashion sense, asks how you’re spending the weekend. You tell her about hosting a dinner party that night. You think, privately, about FINISHING THE DRAFT. Too hard to explain, too full of false hubris. And then you experience a moment of lacerating self-reproach: you’re four hours into the day and you haven’t committed a single word to paper.
10:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.: Lost time. Some of it spent in a grocery store, some of it in your kitchen. Not a moment at your desk. The feeling of self-reproach metastasizes in your guts. Real writers would have hit their five-hundred-word quota by now, but you? You are standing near the canned vegetables in the Sobey’s on Metcalf, holding a plastic food basket, wondering what passata is and where to find it. And then, a little while later, you’re in your kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta sauce, texting the friends who’ll be eating that sauce in a few hours. Those two moments—one from the canned vegetable aisle, one from your hot, fragrant kitchen—strike you one at a time on either side of your conscience, like spheres in Newton’s cradle, transferring a terrible force into your body that shouts: What the hell are you doing?
12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.: You are house-and-dog-sitting for the night so you pack two bags, one full of the food you’ve prepped for the dinner party and one with your pyjamas and an armload of books meant as talismans for when you finally get around to writing. Which you will! You will.
First, though, you resolve to walk the distance from your apartment to the cozy family home on Fifth Avenue where you’ll spend the night. The walk will be clarifying. And it is. But it is other things, too: awkward, ergonomically nightmarish, time-consuming. You arrive at your destination cranky, steaming below your parka, aching in every limb.
1:30 p.m. – 2:00 p.m.: You see to the dog, then allow yourself a few moments of recumbent luxury in front of the fireplace. You try not to do the math, but it does itself: you’ve avoided your most important duty for nearly eight hours, and now there are just three hours left before you must prepare for your guests.
You are a fraud. An imposter. He’ll figure it out, soon enough. He’ll give up on you. You’ll bore your grandchildren one day with stories of everything you could have done, of the editor who could have helped you write wonderful books if only you’d had the gumption to get up from the fireplace and help yourself first.
2:00 p.m. – 2:05 p.m.: Slowly, on heavy legs, you get up from the fireplace.
2:05 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.: You sit at the absent family’s dining room table. Before you, an intimidating spread: that stack of books you hauled from home, your laptop with its blinking cursor on a blank white screen, the Hilroy scribbler where you’ve been taking notes for THE DRAFT.
You think of all the happy, clamorous meals that have taken place around this table, some of them with you. You think of the kids who live in this house, the pair of them, hurtling up and down the stairs, building forts, wrestling the dog. You think of their parents, your friends, who spend every day with their heads bent together over the family business, which they operate from an office right upstairs, drawing from a wellspring of shared determination and confidence. They’ve left some of that commotion and love and commitment behind and you try to fuel yourself with it. You think of it as barracuda food, nourishing your ailing resolve. And, finally, you write.
3:30 p.m. – 3:35 p.m.: You stop writing.
3:35 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.: You call an old friend. She’s visiting Ottawa from Montreal for the weekend. There was talk of getting together, but she’s got discouraging news: both of her little boys are sick. She sounds cheerful but exhausted, and in the background Sam is flinging Jenga blocks at his grandma. After you hang up, you stand for a while, listening: the snoring dog, the electric fire sputtering in its grate, the pops and groans of the house’s old bones. You see how good you’ve got it, how few excuses you have, how the only thing in your way is yourself. No man or kids to divide and sub-divide your time. You have absolute freedom. And how do you spend that freedom? On unnecessary excursions to the gym and to the grocery store. On meal prep, when you could have ordered a pizza and your friends would have loved you just as much. On fluff in Chatelaine.
4:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.: A densely and furiously productive half-hour. Now you are torqued by fear, and something even more powerful: self-disgust. Just shut up and write the fucking draft. Stop complaining. For God’s sake.
4:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.: The dog needs to go out, and you evolve this need into a long walk around the neighbourhood. The bracing cold, the dog’s amiable presence, the glow of restaurant windows. A podcast. The dog will not pass the wine store until you let her go inside and accept a treat from the staff. It takes another treat to lure her out again. In your chest, a sense of panic expands and contracts. You've done almost nothing. On the other hand, you’ve done something. Will he like it? It shouldn’t matter. But it does. It matters so much.
5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.: Friends are coming. You need to prepare. The possibility of getting more work done narrows to nothing, and you feel relieved. It’s out of your control now. You pour a beer. You fill the dog’s food dish. Her tail windmills behind her as she eats. You put some music on. After all, there’s a whole day still left in the weekend. It’ll be all right. You will finish the draft tomorrow. You’ll find it in you, somehow.
You settle into the calm ritual of assembling a meal. You remember your friend Colette quoting Don DeLillo: “A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.” You smack the cheese grater, evicting slivers of provolone. Oh, Donny. You laugh a little, charged with a conspiratorial understanding between writers. Donny, Donny. Don’t you know it.
11 p.m. – 8:00 a.m.: You fall into bed, belly full of food and wine. A night of muddled dreams and then, in the morning, you wake up to the tick-tick-tick of the dog’s claws on the floor below. Fine, powdery snow is falling outside the bedroom window. Staircased on the floor next to the bed are the books you brought with you, which you placed there so you’d see them first thing and hear their message: We all did it. You can, too.
The book on top is the Carver collection from yesterday morning. You pick it up. His photo is on the cover. He is astoundingly barracuda-like. One arm slung on the back of a chair, the other resting on the table in front of him, his body inclined slightly towards the camera, eyes unflinching. Above him, a blurb from the Philadelphia Inquirer: “The summation of a triumphant career.”
You stare and him as a generalized queasiness takes hold. The wine, the memory of yesterday’s waste, the squandered solitude. Downstairs, in your Hilroy scribbler, half-cracked notes for a story you can’t seem to finish. A new, ruinous wallop of self-reproach. The summation of an unsuccessful weekend.
But the weekend isn’t over. The day, this day, has barely begun, and it’s all yours. Yours and the dog’s. You go downstairs and let her into the backyard, where she ambles along paths worn in the snow, pausing to lift her nose towards the sky. You watch her through the window. The Carver book is pinned under your elbow. His barracuda eyes. You open the door and urge the dog back inside. Your laptop, your Hilroy, the Carver, and you, sitting down at the dining room table once more. Driven by the need to do better.
Today you will address the astonishing frailty of your commitment.
8:00 a.m. – 12 p.m.: And you do. You do, you do. Something shifts. You’re moving lithely, like a subaqueous thing, chasing the end of THE DRAFT with single-minded fealty—not to the editor, not to the clock, not even to yourself. What you do is you tell the story. You’re loyal only to that. Tell it using the best words you can, in the best order. He’ll think whatever he thinks of it. One day, when this draft is complete and polished, you’ll meet the editor in a diner and the two of you will have lively, good-natured arguments about its composition, and that will feel immensely rewarding. Today, part of you is working only to earn that reward. But there is another part.
The rare moments that you so often obstruct for yourself: moments of lucidity, of preserving the hours you need to test and experiment and strike out and go after it like an uncaged predator, intelligent, agile, focused. You are working for those moments.
So. Do you want this badly enough?
Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don’t. That’s just how it goes, kiddo. There are guppy days, and there are barracuda days. Don’t damage yourself by believing that if you were somehow a “real writer” you would have none of the former.
Here’s a small consolation: the frustration of feeling less-than is important, because it jacks up the pleasure of feeling like more than enough.
Old Wise Self