I'd never met Raven Mardirosian
before she read tarot cards for me, one gray November day last year in Bellows Falls, Vermont. But it turned out she had met me. Sort of
Raven, whose winglike swath of hair is dark and shiny as her namesake, made tea. We settled down into a large velveteen couch in the eclectic Victorian living room for the reading. She offered me a selection: seven different tarot decks; choose, she said, whichever one you like best. This was a first, the only had readings I'd ever had were done with the classic Rider-Waite deck (if you're familiar with the alas-canceled HBO series Carnivale, the grim tarot cards which swirl in its opening sequence, fusing into black-and-white photographs and film clips from the Depression, are Rider-Waite, I believe).
I selected Tarot of the Four Elements. Its exuberant, vibrant images almost gave off a hum, a little like aboriginal song-line paintings, but on colors as saturated as tropical fruit. (Their creator is artist-tarot scholar Isha Lerner, and I've gratefully used the examples from her site to illustrate this post).
As I admired the cards, before we get started, Raven said conversationally, "Actually, I have a confession to make. I do know you, sort of. I read your blog. I love your writing."
"Thank you, " I said.
"I mean," she continued, "take the one about Ned's penis. I'm a lesbian. I'm not into mens' bodies. But I just loved reading about Ned's penis!"
Of course it turned out I had. But I really couldn't remember it. (For those of you who just got here: Ned is my cherished late husband; he died in an accident in 2000.We'd been together 23 years He was 44; I was 5 days past my 48th birthday).
Although I mostly have an exceptionally precise, detailed memory, amnesia about something I've written, especially if the matters I've been writing about are intimate (and
does it get more intimate than writing about your deceased husband's
dick?) isn't unusual. Possibly this is part of why I'm able to write about personally explicit matters: after I"m done, but not before, my unconscious just hits 'delete.'
For example: more than 25 years ago I served as a juror on a murder case back in Arkansas. Being submerged in the tortured lives of people – some who seemed not so very different from me and people I knew – was exhausting, with lots of "there but for fortune go I" moments, the sense of how easily irrevocable choices are made (When the Lyle Lovett illuminates this so perfectly in the lyrics of "You've Been So Good Up to Now"), and just the crying shame, the waste, the horror — all these were never far from my sorrowing, troubled heart during and for weeks after the trial. Besides hearing testimony, we were was shown graphic crime scene photos in which "spatter patterns" and "brain matter" were highlighted. The hammer, with which
the woman had been pounded out of life, over and over, was handed to us, to examine, passing it one to another. Even after the trial was over, I couldn't shake all it had stirred up in me, and I dreamed about it night after night.
Eventually I wrote about all this in a novel, tio have been titled Common Knowledge of the Affairs of Life (a phrase in the judge's instruction to the jury before deliberation). It was
never published, and I will almost certainly never go back and do the editing that might make it publishable. Since I believe nothing is wasted on the writer, is fine with me: every piece of work, whether good or bad, published or unpublished, serves its author's development as a writer.
And in this case, its author's mental and emotional state: once I wrote this fictionalized account, the real one more or less left me. The particulars vanished from memory, as if an inner computer had crashed and the data was irretrievable.
This did not, of course, help the murder victim; nothing could, except, perhaps, the justice that we jurors were asked to decide, and did. Those who loved that vanished woman live with loss, I'm sure, to this day. But for me, I had been able to fulfill my responsibility as a citizen in a a small American town, and then let go. The nightmares stopped.
How does such such amnesia happen? So much of writing is itself mysterious, even, maybe especially, to the writer. That is part of its seductiveness and gift. As E.L. Doctorow said, " “Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part.”
But here's what I think takes place:
First, a thought, or a collection of thoughts (an idea, object, observation, experience), irritates, moves, troubles, and/or engages me so much that I can hardly stop thinking about it.
The blog about Ned's penis, for instance. It began with a collection of thoughts which emerged, spilling into each other as I first woke. "tangled up in blue"
in Bob Dylan's phrase, on what would have been our 32nd anniversary. Though nine years had passed since his death, I could not stop feeling sorrow, yet again, that he, and that beautiful cock of his, were no longer in the world and that we would and could never, ever again rock together in each others arms, a different kind of tangle.
That blog post follows what happened as I lay there and thought in great detail about our lives and our sexual life, the many turns it had taken (including, agonizingly, an infidelity of his …when we eventually got back together fully afterward, I referred to ruefully to his penis for awhile as "Old Unfaithful."). For eventually, I got out of bed and got up and started writing about all this. For at that point, when thoughts begin to flow in that manner, I can no more not write about whatever subject has taken hold of me is, than I could continue walking vigorously if a large pebble had found its way into my shoe. I'd have to stop and take it out.
Writing is sometimes like that. When it is: I write.
This — following thoughts and ideas as they clarify, join and resolve into words and sentences on paper or screen — is absorbing in a manner so outside ordinary thinking and action that
there isn't room at that moment of writing for anything else to take place. At the moment I am doing this kind of writing, there's no reader. There's no market, no worry about if it will sell and to whom and for how much. No questions about what parents/friends/strangers might think about it. No concern about if it might embarrass me or offend someone else, or how/if it ties into social media, etc, etc.
There is just the story taking shape.
All this — feeling compelled to write, amnesia — is not so much the case with less-personal writing; such as the work I do on assignment or under contract. Though I approach this writing with no less dedication, it is also how I make the
payment. My responsibility is naturally other- and outer-directed, not strictly internal. I must please the editor, and/or accurately help a reader to, say,
put up green tomato mincemeat or make a good pan of cornbread. Writing of this sort has its own satisfactions, many of them.
But the quality of urgency I bring to this work is wholly different. It's volitional, more within my control.
When I write a personal essay (now called short memoir or sometimes "creative non-fiction"), it's the equivalent of taking off my sneaker and shaking out the pebble: I just have to do it, now. And to throw metaphorical consistency into the compost bin, it's also like checking the compass to see where True North is: what the novelist and essayist E.M. Forster meant, I think, when he was asked why he wrote, and replied (I always imagine plaintively, maybe petulantly) "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" Exactly.
So, after writing, I edit. Reread. Edit. Reread. Sometimes, I get reabsorbed right back into the initial process, coming in and out of it as the two sides of any writer (writer/editor) work with each other and the piece. Edit. Reread. Rewrite. I find out what it was I turned out to be saying, or trying to say. I see if I can say it more clearly. I cut out repetitions and mush-words, get more specific. This is the usual lapidary work known to any working writer (perhaps described best by William K. Zinsser, in his, measured, compassionate classic On Writing Well).
The first part, the writing, is the art; this second part, the craft.
But at times one switches back and forth seamlessly and without thought, as when driving a car with a stick and shifting from second gear to third.
Eventually, if I'm satisfied with the piece, I make one of three choices. I either:
- publish it myself (so easy, if it's a blog post; that simple, satisfying click of the button that says "publish")
- try, usually through my agent, to get someone else to publish it, and pay me, print it, distribute it, sell it, and so on. This is a time-consuming, cumbersome process, and such a long road. The gap between writing the piece and having it out there, published can be months, even years— for a poem, novel, or especially a children's book, which requires the publisher's finding of just the right artist and commissioning the work, then waiting for it.
- leave publication out of the equation. I write plenty that I don't publish or even even try to get published.
But in any case, after writing, then crafting, a piece that feels shapely and satisfying
to me, that's when the relief, and a few days later, the amnesia about actual content, kicks in. Publishing (or not) seems to have little to do with this.
Because — as in the example of the murder trial, above — whatever the irritating or painful "it" was that compelled me to begin, writing resolved it. Whether the piece pf writing itself is good or mediocre, it's now an itch scratched. It's a stone no longer digging into flesh of a toe. By writing, I took off the shoe, gave it a good shake, heard the pebble drop back on the road — and it is now indistinguishable from countless other pebbles lying on the road.
And so I keep walking. Until the next time.
After the tarot reading with Raven, I meant, sort of, to go home and look at the
blog and see if I could find what I had written about darling Ned's
penis. I really did.
But I didn't do it.
Of course, at the time I had other troubling things on my mind (for our purposes here and to avoid the siren song of digression, let us say that they'd been with me for awhile, and I'd approached them rationally but unsuccessfully for
so long that I'd urgently wanted another, more poetic uber-rational take — that was, after all, what led me to have my cards read in the first place; a good illuminating dream, my more usual method, had not been forthcoming).
Besides, I almost didn't want to know what I had, evidently, said.
For, and this may surprise you, when I do reread the more more personal skeins of my writing, the part of me that is not a writer is sometimes highly discomfited. It's, oh my God, did I really
write that? And put it out there in public like that? I truly don't set out to be revealing or outrageous (to those of you who may be snorting and saying, "Yeah, right", I can only say: this is how it feels from the inside). Intimate revelation just happens, sometimes, in the course of doing my work, a side-effect.
Which may be why I didn't go back, post-Raven-reading, and hunt for the penis-reference. Frankly, I hardly ever go back and read my own published work, other than some of my children's books, which I read aloud to kids when doing school visits. (I have a major story to tell, in this line, about rereading my novel The Year It Rained after it was published, and the horror when… but, but, no, this is not the time and place for it though I promise I'll tell you someday.)
So I more or less forgot about the post Raven had mentioned.
But about ten days ago I got an email through Facebook.
"Hello, Crescent, this is a big THANK YOU for all you have added to my life. I wrote you telling you I was a big fan of your cornbread book about a month ago and asked you to Friend me, which you kindly did. Well, from enjoying your cookbook to enjoying your FB posts, I found my way to your blog. I looked at the subjects (the "cloud" list) and saw 'sexuality', and I knew that was the one I wanted to check out first. CD, thank you! It did not disappoint! I love that you could write about missing Ned's penis."
Okay. With that I felt I had to go back, find it, and read it.
When I did, I had a Walt Whitman-ish reaction ("Do I contradict myself?") only less sanguine ( "Very well, then, I contradict myself.") One the one hand: I was pleased: it read truthfully and well, had integrity, combined a lot of threads into a coherent whole (though, like most of what I write, it could have been shorter) (this assessment does not, however, since we are loosely on the topic, does not apply to penises).
On the other: there was that highly uncomfortable, embarrassing feeling, the one I alluded to earlier; oh my God, did I really put this out there where anyone can see it? (I may feel this later, should I read this, especially for that last smart-ass remark about penis-size. My contradictions are duking it out even as we speak.)
And there was also confirmation in the rereading: nope, I really don't remember writing this. I did, though, remember well the feelings and events that occasioned it.
I hung out with these reactions, and puzzled over the matter. And also took note of this: that a number of readers had posted thank-yous for my exploring what I had.
I also saw, to my surprise, that that particular post was the only one I'd tagged "sexuality." That was another "hunh?"
For I think about sex and sexuality often. A lot. "All the time" would be overstating it, as would "24/7", but maybe… a good portion of "22/5." I wonder, I thought, how come I've written so little about this?
Said body and its changes were part of what occasioned this. In spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to love (Tennyson), but what about the fancy of a not-so-young woman? Good old "Brother Ass" (as St Francis of Assisi called the body, presumably because it faithfully carries the spirit) was feeling its age, and not happy about it. It complained every time the trail headed steeply upward. The knees protested each time I knelt down to look closely at some small wonder of the woods — once some Canada lilies in tiny fragrant bloom, once at the wanderings of a big fat fuzzy bumbly bumblebee — and also when I paused to snip, with gloved hands, some nettles to take home for steaming. The knees let me know, especially, how much they resented my getting back up after these kneeling and squatting and snipping expeditions.They would like, they informed me, grab-bars or their equivalent, something by which I could pull myself up, never mind that you rarely, if ever, find grab-bars and stinging nettle in the same locale. Nor does the average person associate the need for grab-bars in any way with even the possibility of sex.
But sex is what I was thinking about, in solitude (David is in Los Angeles at the moment), in my late-middle-aged-but-not-quite-old body. I was thinking in particular about the difference between "sexy" and "sexual."
How "sexy" is all pose, all outer, all designed to provoke a response in the other: how you display, dress, move, and reveal or conceal your body; whether you can do those easily imitated facial expressions, the one every teenager practices in front of a mirror (plump lips, slightly parted, unsmiling, glossy and moist; eyes slightly narrowed in seeming disinterest).
How "sexual" , by contrast, is all inner, self-directed, self-determined. It's identity: how you see yourself (assuming you see yourself as sexual person), rather than how someone else sees you. Rather than being a mirrored-back-in-their-eyes thing — that would be mere "sexy" — it's who you are, what you know yourself to be.
And yet, self-validating about my dragonly sexuality though I am, there was the recent adventure with the security guy in Portland, Oregon. Or non-adventure. Or… something. Which still has me puzzled.
But wait! That's another story, like The Year It Rained series. And surely it should be reserved for another post, one that can join the "sexuality" cloud.