I’ve been not writing. There are reasons. I’m knee-deep in a non-fiction project with a short deadline. I’ve been sewing madly. It’s gardening season. I’m mentoring a writer, and prepping for an interview series, and a hundred other things. These are legitimate reasons. Also, writing is hard, and I reached a point with my story earlier this year where I was stuck and trying to force it, and then my back spasmed and wouldn’t stop and, well. Here we are.
But I’ve been up front with myself about needing to write non-fiction at the moment, up front about the requirement to just put Good Birds aside for now. It’s been a relief, honestly, to be writing something that doesn’t need me to make stuff up. In fact, making stuff up would be the opposite of the goal right now. And it’s been just fine. I have a lot of enthusiasm for the non-fiction project. It’s a book, and it’ll be good to have another one of those under my belt. Especially, as I say, one I don’t have to create out of nothing.
A few days ago, though, I took Good Birds out for a spin. My gang of Wednesday writers and I were scheduled to read from works in progress at the Central Library, where we gather to write (that is, to complain bitterly about writing) each week. I was terrified contemplating reading from this work in progress. This book I do not understand at all. This book I have been forcing, and thinking about, and trying this and trying that and still coming up so short of where I want to be. Still, I chose an excerpt—one that includes the very first paragraphs I wrote of this book—and I tried not to barf.
Once I was at the lectern and reading aloud to the full room, I kind of dropped right into my story, and all my nerves faded away. As I read the excerpt I remembered what had been so exciting to me about the story in the first place. I felt the simplicity of what I’ve written, and the way it bobs along.
After the reading, some of us were talking about how we feel we’re not smart enough to write the projects we are writing. I mean, I feel this very deeply. I am sure it’s true. I don’t see how it can’t be true—of myself. But those other writers, they are some of the smartest, most intelligent people I know. There’s no way they’re not smart enough to write what they’re trying to write. For a moment I considered that there’s a possibility, an outside chance, at least, that potentially, maybe, I am also perhaps, maybe smart enough to write Good Birds. I’m saying there’s a chance, that’s all. I tucked that thought away. It’s a new one, and I’ll need to spend some time with it.
The next day it occurred to me that the excerpt I had read was written before I started thinking so goddamn much about what I’m trying to do. Back when I was just feeling my way through my story, patting around to find the shape of my characters. Back when I was using my intuition, instead of exhausting my intelligence. Hmm, I thought. I tucked that away with the possibility that I might potentially be not too dumb to write this book.
Then I went to see Amelia Curran and Erin Costelo, songwriters who typically give me a lot of feelings. I stood on the hard concrete floor at the Marquee feeling feelings and then suddenly, I had this kind of fizzy trancy feeling I get when I’m about to know something about writing. “I just need to go in a straight line,” I thought. “I need to stop complicating everything and just go in a straight line right off the back of the excerpt.” I stood with that for a bit, and then I could feel the next tiny bit of story coming down. I headed outside to type up a few sentences and email them to myself. I felt a kind of euphoria I haven’t felt in a long while.
That night, I dreamt all night that I had become a bass player. And not just any bass. Double bass. The big guy. I cursed this unwieldy instrument. It kept flopping out of my hands, crashing discordantly to the floor. I couldn’t control the sucker. “Why, why, why did I become a bass player,” I wailed. I woke myself up, despair and dread forming a knot in my jaw. In the middle of the night, I had a thought clear as the chime of a triangle: that’s about my book. I have turned it into a double bass, when really what I need to play is violin. Something compact I can carry in one hand. Something with a sweet, high, singular voice. Stop Complicating Everything: The Stephanie Domet Story.
When I was in kindergarten, my teacher recommended I be put into the “slow” grade one. Being as it was the nineteen seventies, there was such a thing as the “slow” grade one, and you could be put in it without your parents even being notified. After a few weeks in which I was no doubt bored out of my mind, the school finally called my mother and said, we want to put Stephanie in the “regular” grade one. And so, mornings I spent in the “slow” grade one, then in the afternoons, I crossed the hall to room 101, the “regular” grade one. In room 101, they were growing beans in paper cups on the windowsills. There was a gerbil. They were learning long words like “because.” They did math. They were all so much smarter than me, and I knew then that I would never, ever catch up.
Forty years later, I am still worried I’ll be sent back to the slow grade one.
I don’t need to prove that I belong. I don’t need to be an intellectual writer. I just have to write what I am here to write. And if that’s a simple story that just goes in a straight line right off the back of the very first few sentences of this project I ever wrote, so be it. Play that violin. Leave the double bass alone.