seniortime sadness (and writing through it)
Anne Lamott (who I consider to be a spiritual mother of sorts) says that writing can be about filling you up when you are empty, and also about dealing with the emptiness. I’ve experienced this to be true at many points in my life, especially now as I am entering my final year of college. There’s a certain kind of swelling sadness, or at least a new sense of depth, that is growing swiftly at this particular stage in my life. It’s been comforting to use writing – the creation process – as a useful tool to help guide me through these uncertain waters.
When I came to this university just three years ago, the scary prospect of the real world™ suddenly paused. Jobs, career, and future relationships didn’t demand any present concern. I allowed myself to become imbued with the comforting knowledge that they would all work out in their proper time. College, after all, would last forever.
I’ve experienced my undergraduate education here like a stilted version of purgatory. I’ve been stretched and challenged and tugged in all the right ways, I’ve made mistakes and stumbled down weird roads, and I’ve loved well and grown as a human being. Now, senior year is approaching. The incessant “so what are you doing after graduation” question has already begun to surface. Our eternal deadline is on the horizon and I’m honestly a bit frightened at the prospect of what comes next.
So here I am, these universally isolating thoughts clattering around in my head, spending a day “writing” and relaxing before residents move in, before classes start, before campus kicks off and all hell breaks loose. I’ve had a few days like this in the past week, and I’m starting to notice that every time I “dedicate a day to writing,” I end up instead reading thought pieces and comic books, obsessively tweezing rogue body hairs, marathon-watching my favorite shows on Netflix, neurotically scrubbing my carpet clean with blue patches of tape.
As Anne Lamott has also observed, the one thing no one never tells you about writing (the one “fly in the ointment,” as she puts it) is just how much the actual act of writing sucks, how much it strains your mind and soul and smarts at every part of you.
I’m already a really undisciplined person. And writing is therapeutic, but it doesn’t dish out rose-colored glasses; the whole ugly process of forcing myself to sit down and write only makes me realize just how bad I am at calmly organizing my thoughts coherently on paper.
I have over a hundred unfinished drafts sitting in my blog queue. Some of these are almost totally completed, others have disparate thoughts I’ve vaguely fleshed out, and a few feature just one or two impossible sentences. I’m sure many of these works will never see the light of day. But the ones that do, I’m proud of them. They aren’t just random, I take the time to create and polish them. I want them to stretch their legs and get out there into the world and start walking all over the place.
I’ll admit it – when I’m feeling celestially dramatic, I have a real sense of guardianship over my words. I almost see my individual posts or essays as my children. (I also wonder if other writers or artists ever feel this way.) Each individual labor is meaningful to me, a little piece of myself, born in love, and each of these little ones is unique and special in their own way. Like a parent, I do my best to look in on my creations from time to time, and I always hope they are doing well.
Sometimes these babies will make a mess: sometimes they misbehave and cause a stir, stomping around and tracking muddy fingerprints all over the walls of my tiny social network. Other times they just sit quietly and play in the corner, hoping no one will notice them. (I tend to like these ones best.) Other babies will silently pack up their things and light out, marching off into the unknown. I don’t hear back from all of them, but way down the road, some might return with some tiny bit of gospel, of good news.
Like yesterday, for instance, I woke up to a Facebook message from an old enemy who had once been an old friend. It was odd, considering the way things ended between us, but I was intrigued and excited to connect again after years of silence. She mentioned that a friend of hers had linked to my blog, and that she’d clicked a few posts back to something I wrote about our freshman year of college. The post made her feel sad and nostalgic encouraged her to take the initiative to reconcile things (an action I had not really been brave enough to take up to this point).
Through one five minute Facebook conversation, we both regained a friendship. A bridge became unburned. It was that easy. We’d held onto the fear and regret for years now, and in the end, it was silly how simple solving our conflict was. It made me want to grab ahold of the little one who helped orchestrate this healing and give her a hug and a blue ribbon, for humbling me and teaching me what it means to forgive and forget as children do.
Now, there’s probably one large downside (besides the spiritual arrogance, of course) to thinking of your words as your children: you’ll eventually have to kill them. I was writing a newsletter article a month or so ago and I was given a word limit of 400. I turned off Netflix and ate some cereal and mustered up the strength to work for an hour and a half, then whipped my head up to check the word count. 1000. I spent the next three hours wracked with hot tears, stinging anger, and misplaced guilt as I culled a herd of my own precious children down by the hundreds. (Okay, it wasn’t that intense, but seriously, it was hard, and I felt like a monster.)
“Kill your darlings,“ is a valuable piece of advice that’s very popular among my writer friends. I also hate it. To kill your darlings essentially means that whenever you think you have written a sentence that is so fantastic, so clever, so amazing, that it’s sure to make everyone realize how wonderful and intelligent of a writer you are…whenever that happens, you need to swallow hard and kill the thing. Cut the entire sentence from the piece, get rid of it now before anyone sees it. It is almost certainly too floral, too verbose, or too self-important for anyone but you to stomach. It means other things too, I think, but you might be better off asking my friends about that.
I kind of got off topic here. My point, I think, is that even though writing is so horribly difficult and annoying, sometimes good things can come from the pain and awkwardness that go into it. Disciplined writing, killing my darlings, helps me to understand a crazy world that can make me feel alone, a world that often scares the shit out of me. As messy and infuriating as the whole writing process can be, the mental clutter and disarray actually help me fight off the emptiness and the unknown that the future brings. And so I welcome the struggle. Better chaos than oblivion.