1. Non-writing is not writer’s block. Writer’s Block assumes a normal flood of creativity being temporarily held back by some mysterious barrier.
2. Non-writing is not willful refusal to write—an unwillingness born of insecurity (I’m not good enough) or fear (If I tell that story, god knows, I might unleash a firestorm within me).
3. Non-writing is not lack of energy, although these days (need I bring up chemo and radiation again?) I have more than my share of lack of energy.
4. Non-writing is not waiting for inspiration. Non-writing is not waiting.
5. Non-writing is not-writing. Which is what I’m doing. Ah, not true, you say! What are these words? They are surely writing. Yet I am not heading-out into the territory like Huck Finn. I am sitting here, stirring these few words around in this little pot.
6. I take it this condition is somehow essential. I know that because it is happening. It has never happened to me before. The eternal burr under my saddle has kept language going across my page at a fast trot. Where, now, the burr?
7. In general, among us humans, it seems that language has subtly attempted to supersede experience. Or has claimed to explain it, or harden it into “fact.” Language has created around me a charming house of my own decorating. Lamp here, table here. But no, it’s not that language has failed me; it has only seductively raised its scrim between me and what essentially is the case.
8. Language and I have had a tense and desperate relationship, erotic and headstrong. I’m not about to pillory, or disown, anything this delightful. I suppose I could have gone my whole life, pushing the language-cart ahead of me.
9. Yet, non-writing has its virtues. I find I am raw: undefined, undefining. If writing comes out of this, it will not come from my pushing or pulling. I’ve tried that. All I get is inauthentic drivel. There’s a hellova lot of work out there, well-received work, that’s been flogged into being. I don’t need to add to that. (And actually, maybe strained writing’s not so bad. It’s a mirror of the human condition.)
10. I am in a state of receivership. Which is, I intuit, where I wanted to be all along. Not waiting, but open. Notice I didn’t say open to whatever comes next. Is a wind chime waiting? Is a nose waiting to breathe? In one sense, I guess. But basically they’ve been shaped to receive, and when they do, they give forth the result. Okay, too simple a metaphor, but there seems to be something important here, a distinction I recognize in work by others that resonates with me.
So what does this say to younger, or newer, writers, the ones I teach here in the MFA program? Those pushing hard to get better at this work? Push away, I’d say. In the flush of work, especially in the flush of work, at some point the ego itself seems to begin to be ground into a finer pulp, one you can see through more and more clearly. Then the senses can do their work. They can see what’s actually there where the words have crowded in.
I tried to figure how to segue, but gave up. I wanted to give you this photo taken just a week ago at the lake. The now-famous Family-on-the-Cottage-Porch photo, taken this time just after my 70th birthday party. In it are my children, Kelly and Scott, and their families, my sister Millie, her husband John and their children and families. And here is the last poem in No Need of Sympathy, thinking of a past generation of Family-on-the-Cottage-Porch (same porch) photo.
Photo of Us On the Cottage Front Porch
We were there then, weren’t we—
everything we turned out to be. I can see
signs, even though we were still inside
ourselves, thinking we could hide.
Cousin Alan hoists tiny barbells, eyes
rolled up in his head, showing only whites:
Look at me! Roger, open-faced but wry
half smile. Cousin Dennis, naked sprite
in the foreground, swimsuit hidden, poised
as if to take off, and did: all that trouble—
prison, palsy, death. Aunt Cleone, employed
happily being the mother, seated, of boys.
And me, standing, in striped halter, arms
behind my back, watching Alan bemusedly—
I use that word because it charms me,
though back then I wouldn’t have agreed.
I did think later—do think—the word
had always been there, and my sister has been
beside me, always, smiling nervously,
tightly holding a left-hand finger within
the right’s grip. She had reason to fear,
the tumor already planted in her brain. All
of us look skinny enough to disappear,
tightly grouped off-center, as if to forestall
our own sliding to the slick white edge.