Working on my third chapbook. Reading, reordering, marking revisions – single poems that felt baked turn raw again in company of others. And then I lose all feeling for it. Who wrote those? What the hell was she trying to say? Two impulses battle:
One says, put down the pen and walk away before someone gets hurt.
The other says, this is shit. Burn it. It’s not anywhere close to what you really meant to say.
I’ve learned to walk away, knowing that a bubbling anger will bring me back. Anger at myself for declaring failure just because I don’t understand, can’t categorize, can’t decipher the damn things. (The Steve Martin/Bill Murray classic “What the hell is that?” comes to mind.)
Psycho, Blade Runner, It’s a Wonderful Life – failures on release. Beethoven’s late works earned him walkouts. Rite of Spring caused riots. Occupy was declared over by those who think it began and ended with Zuccotti Park. Even seat belts caused a ruckus when they first showed up in cars. Yes, all failures – the public’s failure to experience the new on its own terms and allow ourselves to be changed by it.
Last night, after seeing Baltasar Kornakur’s The Deep, a recognition slowly dawned and suddenly broke: How my own sense of failure is in inverse proportion to the unfamiliar I allow in my own life – how small I’ve kept that canvas and, thus, how great my sense of failure! I tell myself, if I had more courage to face the unknown, I could really write.
Driving home through the dark toward the Pacific (I love driving west, knowing the ocean is coming closer) I realized I’ve had it backwards: I don’t need more courage to write. I need to write to find more courage.
The Deep is the story of an Icelandic commercial fisherman who, in 1984, improbably survived a shipwreck in the 41-degree North Sea. He swam six hours to the outer island where he lived, then walked another two hours through blowing snow and sharp lava to his town. Doctors were fascinated by his extraordinary physiology and by his will to survive – both things that, to him, seemed ordinary. He felt he did what anyone would do.
More extraordinary: While in the water, he makes a deal with God to do several things if given one more day to live: Take care of a drowned shipmate’s old dog, comfort the sons and wife of another shipmate, drink milk from a glass as his mother always asked (instead of slugging it straight from the carton) and to finally approach the woman he’s longed for, exchanged glances with, but never spoken to.
He does all these things except the last. We leave him on a fishing boat heading out of the harbor – the prospect of being back at sea less terrifying for him than crossing her threshold.
To the person inside the act, it doesn’t feel brave to do something that’s not a choice. It’s allowing the unfamiliar that’s terrifying. And writing, I finally admit to myself, is not a choice. The way I live my life, however, is.
I’ve wasted years finding ways not to sit with what wants to be said. It’s time I got out of my own way, whether that means going to sea or – more terrifying – coming to land and crossing a new threshold.