This month, I have spent many hours reading when I could have been writing. I have decided to think of this as a recharge of the creative aquifer rather than as procrastination. One of the books I read, The Art of Procrastination by John Perry (here’s an essay version of it) pointed out that delaying action often reveals that circumstances would have changed — and changed such that the work one originally set out to do would have been for naught. So waiting can lead to greater efficiency.
With that in mind, I have been waiting for my recharged aquifer to bubble up with a brilliant idea. Or any idea.
While I have been waiting I have been spending 15 minutes a day on a “one good sentence” — a practice from Verlyn Klinkenborg that is slowly unearthing stories about my grandmothers and their nail polish or lack thereof.
I do not paint my fingernails, ever, anymore, though I spent the better part of years 13 through 19 supporting Revlon’s production of elegant little bottles containing “candy cane red” and “pink angel wings” glossy polish. My toes still receive occasional attention from paid professionals who not only can see where they’re applying polish, but also have those fancy jetted footbaths that I pay to dunk my tootsies into.
As a teenager, painting my nails was an all-afternoon activity, usually a Saturday afternoon before a date. I’d douse a cotton ball in foul-smelling, acetone-based polish remover and rub last week’s polish off, file my tips, apply a base coat, wait for it to dry, apply the colored coat, perhaps twice, again waiting for it to dry between coats, and then seal it all off with a “top coat” that was always guaranteed to be un-chippable but that chipped within 48 hours.
I now look back on those afternoons as wasted time. I could have been practicing my writing, accumulating rejections like Stephen King, who shares in his marvelous book, On Writing, that he hammered a coffin nail into his wall at a tender age (14? 15?), leaving the majority of it exposed, and hung all his rejection slips from it. He had filled one and a half such nails before receiving a note from an editor who was willing to work with him on a piece — not a flat-out acceptance, if I remember correctly, but a “this has enough promise” acceptance. If I had done that perhaps I’d have more published by now. And my nails and lungs would not have been exposed to the now-we-know-they-cause-cancer fumes of those pretty red and pink bottles and that polish remover.
Twenty-twenty hindsight, an annoyingly true truism.
But I obviously didn’t have the ambition King did. I didn’t do write and submit aggressively when I was in my teens, or my twenties, or my thirties. I picked up a bit in my early forties, but now I’m creeping up on fifty and panicking that my remaining brain cells won’t be up to the discipline of creativity, even tho’ I’ve finally figured out what I need to “practice” a writing discipline.
Furthermore, one of my light-a-fire-under-my-writing-butt techniques, eavesdropping in coffeeshops, wasn’t working for me: I’ve not been hearing very well for a couple of years, and now this seems to be getting in the way of my writing. So early in January I went to an audiologist for a hearing test. Result: the mechanics of my ears are just fine. Better than average. My problem is that my brainstem, the part of the brain that processes sound, and separates different frequencies from each other, is beginning to decay. Damn!
And as I moped about, post-hearing-test, my writing moped, too. Oh, poor us, woe is we. I am a dry patch of arid land upon which no creative blossom shall ever spring forth. Etcetera.
The difference this time is that seventy-two hours into my despair-fest, I realized: I have been here before. It is January. I have been blue in January for the past four years. I should just shut up, read some books and wait for February.
Tomorrow is February first, and I am happy to report that altho’ my brainstem is no longer able to separate the hiss of the milk frother at Bollo’s from the urgently-spoken-but-two-tables-down details of a night of misguided passion, the aquifer beneath my arid land has been recharged by my all-out feasting on books. As Nick Hornby says,
“Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time.”
(from The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle With the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Meaning to Read)
And so to my desk, for lo! decaying brainstem or not, books have recharged my aquifer. Here are some of the words that rained on my arid land:
“The stewardess had disappeared and the passengers began a slow liturgical wail.” — Joy Williams, Dimmer (a short story)
“In mid-mass at the point where the sermon is delivered, the young priest walks to the lectern and reads announcements. He reads them badly. His voice is high and blunted by feedback. He syllabicates the names of the recently deceased and sounds like speech recognition software. In him the congregates see either the future of religion or a confirmation of the wisdom of clerical celibacy. Imagine, they think, if he had children. Picture the IQs.” — J.T. Barbarese, “Politics” Poetry, July/August 2012.
“The ending is a tragedy in miniature, but it is flicked away, like a cigarette, and life drifts on.” — Anthony Lane, “Critics Notebook” The New Yorker, Aug. 27, 2012
“India vs. Pakistan is a cricket match for any fan of sport. The rivalry is unmatched. I do not have an equation. but I can tell you watching India vs. Pakistan is the nearest thing we have to watching a gentleman’s nuclear war where one side fires a missile it explodes there’s a huge mushroom cloud a lot of people die and then it is the turn of the other side.” — Paul Kavanagh, “Cricket” in Annalemma, Issue Nine.