Photo Credit: “Portland, Oregon” by Holly Hayes

Over the weekend, the hacker and I signed a lease on a house outside of Portland, Oregon, fulfilling a longtime dream to live in a place where I can play my ukulele without torturing strangers. It’s a done deal. We even brought the key home with us, but we won’t actually move for another month. So, almost as soon as we signed the lease, we had to turn around and make the ten hour drive back to Berkeley.

I try not to whine, but it’s probably been clear for awhile now that the gloss on California wore off a long time ago for me, and as we came up over the hill on I-80 where the lights around the San Francisco Bay are visible for the first time, my fingers dug into the seat as if I was physically bracing myself. My neck tightened, triggering a two-day migraine.

For the rest of the trip, when I wasn’t refreshing Twitter to see if BART had gone on strike yet, I was making plans for how I would keep myself from going crazy before the move.  At the top of the list was the decision to put down my novel until after we were settled. I’ve tried to force myself to work through moves before, and I never actually make any progress. Instead of stressing out about it this time, I decided that it was best to save myself the agony of having to throw out a month of work.

I’m going to be present, I told myself. I’m going to journal a lot about the move, so that if I ever decide to write about it I’ll have journals to draw from. This month will actually be an experience investment in future work.

Has that actually happened? Of course not.

Today was the Hacker’s first day back at the startup lair after our trek north, and as soon as he left I was at the kitchen table with my notebook picking up a chapter I’d left unfinished before the trip.  The two-day migraine was threatening to become a three-day migraine, and I’d done everything I knew to do. The only thing I hadn’t done was write, so I broke my no-writing rule, promising to quit unless my headache got better.

Six pages later, my headache was gone, the chapter was done, and I’d started another filled with the rambling first person introspection and setting description that is generally very difficult for me in fiction.

It was all very surprising and confusing, so I went back immediately to try to figure out what had gone so wonderfully, wonderfully right.

Photo Credit: “Autumn Leaves” by Tim-Pekka Heima

In the scene, the protagonist drives through the backwoods of New Hampshire reflecting on the decision to accept an inheritance that comes with a lot of responsibility and potential annoyance. I recognized the scene from a drive we took over the weekend from Hillsboro to St. John’s through an autumn forest, the maples lit up like firecrackers. The experience was bittersweet because it reminded me so much of New England and forced me to entertain the idea that I will probably never be happy in a place without four seasons, and I may never be happy living anywhere but a place that is unlivable for me most of the year.

For me, writing about an autumn wood while I sat at the kitchen table looking out over palm trees was fantasy, escapism, and it was that ability to check out for awhile that released me from the tension of being in a place I didn’t want to be and allowed me to linger somewhere else.

In a lecture Neil Gaiman gave for the Reading Agency, he talks about escapism:

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

He is talking here, of course, about reading escapist literature, but I think the point applies to writers, as well.

While I was scrolling through Twitter and my RSS reader this morning, I found no less than fifteen posts barking at writers to butts-in-chair and get back to work and only one lonely article (I can no longer find) that mentioned in passing a gaggle of popular writers who write in bed surrounded by their favorite foods and drinks. The implication was that these writers needed all of that creature comfort to convince themselves to work, as if writing is psychological torture that can’t be faced without sufficient quantities of potato chips and alcohol.

It’s an attractive idea in some ways. It makes it easier to justify spending time making stuff when you can convince yourself that writing fiction sucks just as much as any other job and that the point is to produce, to crank out words like the postal service in rain and snow and burnout and frustration and tedium.

Who am I to say? Maybe that is what writing is like for the bed writers. Maybe they have expectations and deadlines, and the only way they can sustain their fame is to coax themselves to face the blank page by whatever means necessary.

But maybe it isn’t. And maybe there are other ways to approach writing fiction. Maybe bed is comfy and hot chocolate is tasty, and the best way to allow others to escape is to first escape yourself, and the best way to fulfill the fantasy of others is to fulfill that fantasy for yourself first on the page.

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