Space and Sea: Some Thoughts on Not Writing

I still have the art school brain. The philosophy goes like this: every free moment must be spent in studio if you’re ever going to get better. I am forever caught between anxious labor and trying to affect the calm appearance of someone more collected than I actually am. For so long, working was a way of having fun. Real fun, like watching TV or going out, rots your brain so much that art becomes difficult or impossible. It has taken me many years to work on this art school mentality–to remind myself that writing is about observing and collecting from the world as much as it is about getting those thoughts down on paper and in stories. But if you go out into the world, you are not writing. It’s a tricky balance, and one that has everything to do with tricking yourself into some kind of healthy lifestyle. I’m terrible at this.

I believe I can stop writing anytime I want as long as I never quit. When I did stop, knowing that I had to collect and observe the world before I could produce any fiction or art reviews, it made relaxing impossible. I had to walk across a minefield of guilt just to get out of my house every day. I got so far behind on my deadlines, working on anything practical meant not working on ten creative projects, which made working on everything very stressful. Stress led to inactivity, which led to watching TV, which led to guilt, which led to work, which led to impostor syndrome, which led to inactivity, which of course repeated the whole cycle over again. This made me think one can never be truly happy if they live their lives in competition with themselves. So I came up with a temporary solution that would help me get back to a balance: I stopped doing most things expected of me, regardless of the consequences. On this list was writing, so I stopped writing too.

When I stopped writing I watched TV and read books about outer space. I couldn’t get enough of future societies forming haphazardly after a great war or societal reorganizing. I was into the civilizations that emerged. I felt, because I had lost control of something I loved to do and was a little trapped in, that the time I was living in was insufficient. There wasn’t a real requirement to the escapist programs and literature I sought in my bout of not writing, only that they take place–at least partially–in outer space. I justified my break by thinking I could stop writing if humanity dissolved into chaos, took to the skies in clunker rockets or sophisticated vessels of fiberglass and chrome. I could allow myself to stop writing only if I suddenly had to pack up and shoot off my demolished planet on a rickety DIY spaceship (the kind I would prefer, since it’s the end of the world anyway). This was the only scenario I imagined acceptable to excuse my lack of writing. I imagined the night sky sparkled eternally around me. When I looked out of a little circular window on my imagined space craft to watch a minor comet, or glowing bit of space debris shoot across the distant night, I imagined there was something so profound and extraordinary about the universe that I didn’t–couldn’t–understand, that it was OK if I never wrote again, because the truths were all suddenly different. I was no longer a writer because I was no longer on my home planet. I was in a little ship without earthly concerns. I was very OK with this.

I used to like riding in airplanes, but not anymore. Preparing for an airplane ride is an uncomfortable hassle, followed by a series of ever-tightening restrictions on the body’s natural shapes and excretions. Traveling by airplane requires too much forethought. The correct amount of fluid ounces, the easiest shoes, the emptying of all the carry-on pockets to remove stray lighters or pepper spray. It’s a too-restricted form of traveling for anyone who hopes to soak and savor messages exchanged in spaces in between spaces. One must plan for the discomfort of an airport in advance. Somewhere between boarding the plane and arriving at the next airport, brain function bottlenecks. We become essential again, primitive. Language is obstructed by growing discomfort. Etiquette lies somewhere, flattened in some rural area after being ejected from the aircraft. No matter how many times I clean my hands, my fingernails are always black after flying. But a spaceship allows for the freedom to choose what you carry, and the spaceship is designed for long distances and relies on sharp mental faculties. I had a checklist for my perfect spaceship-driven story arc. I dreamed of strong female pilots, conflicts and tensions on different planets. There should be at least one elaborate heist to get the blood pumping. Romance was a take-it-or-leave-it. Honestly, I could do without.

Before I was into outer space, I was into oceans. There weren’t enough programs on the ocean to keep me satisfied. I watched everything I could find, and then I watched them all again. This is also a bad habit of mine: I like things I’ve seen before. It was a wonderful distraction from writing! I would do it again if I could grant myself the permission. I watched all the ocean documentaries and then I watched the documentaries on life on earth. I read about giant squids and took myself to my favorite museum exhibits alone, where a winding ramp took me down through a blue display of deep ocean life and backwards into history, when ocean plants were as strange as those on distant planets. I thought, if all this doesn’t bring me inspiration, it at least will bring me pleasure, one of the rare feelings during a period of sustained creative inactivity. I was obsessed with finding either the ancestor of all life on the planet, down in the deep sea where we all emerged and became erect and walked as giants on dry land, or with imagining the future hybrids that would emerge from a fragmented society. My progression into a period of not writing was a movement from the first sparks of sentient life on earth, to contemplating an advanced, utopian society. The story of my procrastination was the story of life itself.

In time, I began to live in darkness.

The late, exhausting hours spent ignoring my deadlines and responsibilities branched out like neurons, until I was aware of every minute blinking in and out, and of the circular behavior of thought patterns. This pushed me into a premature period of writing again, and I wasn’t ready for it. At night in the oceans, coral polyps bonk around with each other (sex) while the host bodies do the dirty work waging turf disputes (conflict). They encroach on their neighbors, throbbing and clawing with their intestinal webs, devouring the hard shell of the adjacent body. I shouldn’t have forced my writing to happen during my not writing period, because during those nights, my mind turned into coral. It chewed up old ideas and turned them to dust, spitting out fragments of weak flesh and new buddings. I watched on in horror. Everything I made during the daylight hours was turned into food for the more aggressive and terrifying part of the creative brain, that insatiable, horrific critic that is most active in the evenings. This signified something important that I have taken many years to learn: when you’re not working, own it. Be the observer, the normal person, the sponge. Don’t be a writer or an artist when you are supposed to be taking a break to learn.

This was a wonderful piece of wisdom to discover, even if I have to relearn it each time. And in spite of, or maybe because of this, I turned into a night writer. Which I hate. I prefer daylight activity. I photosynthesize like a houseplant with ideas in periods of writing. But when I was finally plugged back into writing again, the days were taken over by the crushing to-do lists I had accumulated while I shirked and procrastinated my responsibilities. Nighttime was when I felt some sense of freedom from what I expected of myself, and as long as I wasn’t lying down and thinking at the same time, I discovered I could write again, just a little bit. Many nights, at a time when I would happily be headed off to bed, an idea struck my head like a book falling from a shelf, and I knew I couldn’t just lay there like an idiot. (The biggest lie I still tell myself is “I’ll remember that tomorrow”.)

What I discovered about this process seems, in retrospect, like an inevitable evolution. In the nighttime, I was closer to the color of space and the color of the deep ocean. Being surrounded by the dark, even in the light polluted city, renewed my sense of freedom from the world. At night, in my little apartment, in a submarine or a spacecraft gliding through a weightless environment, I could imagine I was free from the self-generated pressure to write and write well. Responsibility, commitments, deadlines, criticism, and self-doubt all disappeared behind me as I cruised further away from the scattering dust of earth into as much blank space as I could dream. It’s unfortunate that I am this kind of writer, who can’t snatch up and utilize free moments like acorns falling to the yard, because I need much more space and patience than any creative person should be allowed. So this is what I’m getting at: I’m writing now, and I’m going to post more finished work up on the website. I promise it won’t all be publishable work, or even work that is polished (to my obsessive Virgo standards) but it will be something.

In the meantime, if you have any recommendations for your favorite space and sea books, TV shows, or movies, I will save them in a list for the next time I stop writing.

 

 

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