You Are Here

8 Feb

I used to think that my life would always move in a linear way, like an arrow rushing towards a target or a row of dominos collapsing in perfect order. I’ve never believed that everything happens for a reason, but I did think that someday I would look back on what I’ve done and some kind of clear trajectory or narrative would emerge – like the time I read 100 Years of Solitude and was mostly baffled by it until the very end when a few choice paragraphs made clear all of the book’s obscure patterns and themes. I keep looking for those types of paragraphs in my own life, the ones that will shine a light on all of my murkiest, most inexplicable choices and prove that everything has only ever been leading to this.

I’ve been struggling with writing lately. I’m treading the line between “can’t” and “don’t want to,” that funny no man’s land where it’s hard to tell whether you need to try harder or just give up. A few weeks ago Nathan took me to a dive bar, pulled out a notebook and pen and told me that we were going to think up ten story ideas together to prove that I could still do it. Several drinks later I was yelling that it would be to write novel about 18 year old Mary Shelley slutting around Geneva, exchanging caustic bon mots with Lord Byron and composing a seminal work of science fiction. But when I got home and opened a new Word doc all I could see was the huge blankness of it, which seemed to me to mirror exactly the blankness in my head.

I’ve always believed that writing, like any other craft, is one that you can hone through dull, persistent, non-stop toil. I told myself that work begets work, and dove into the frantic grind that is freelance journalism. I pitched publication after publication, and whenever I received a rejection I would just turn around and send the same pitch somewhere else. I auctioned off deeply personal stories because an embarrassing first person essay is worth a thousand well-cited statistics. When my deadlines began to stack up I felt excited instead of anxious. I churned out hot take after hot take, often just recycling the same general words and ideas while applying them to new situations.

I thought that I was learning to be a better writer, but mostly I was just learning to be faster, sloppier one. And then I hit a wall and couldn’t write anything, not even the same essay about reproductive rights that I’d written a thousand times before.

Failure and success are a funny binary. A marriage can be a strong healthy relationship for a dozen years or more, but if for whatever reason it ends in divorce then we still call it a failed marriage. The same goes for failed careers, as if the choice to move on to something else eclipses any good times that might have happened. The way we apply these labels after the fact makes it seem like the whole enterprise was always objectively a big mistake. This, in turn, rewrites the narrative of our experiences so that they comfortably fit the model of failure/success – because if they didn’t, what would they be? Just a mess of good and bad that doesn’t make any rational sense.

I have spurts where writing comes easily and I’m able to produce essay after competent essay. When that happens, it’s tempting to believe that I’ve finally hit my stride as a writer; I feel the needle slip into the groove and I think this is it. But then I’ll go through dry spells where everything feels forced, my writing alternating between saccharine, adjective-laden prose and stilted sentences that refuse to have life breathed into them. And just like the good periods make me believe that I’ve finally made it, the difficult periods make me feel like it can only be downhill from there.

I’m trying to tell myself that I’m not failing, just taking the long way around. A little while ago a friend of mine said that he read somewhere that all artists have ten great years in which they produce their best work. “But,” he said, “what if those years are spread out? What if instead of one amazing decade, you get a year in your twenties, a couple of years in your thirties, and so on?”

What if. The idea was both comforting and exhilarating.

Beginnings are easy, or at least fun and exciting. And in some ways endings, with all their finality and clean lines, are easy too – at the very least they free you from worrying about when the end will come. What are much more difficult are the in-between times, the times when you’re adrift, rudderless and without a destination, in some uncharted sea. Do you try to paddle towards shore, even if you have no idea where shore is? Or do you sit and wait for rescue? All you can do is hold on. Or not.

Life does not move in straight lines. It moves in lazy detours; sometimes it loses traction and skids sideways, and sometimes it loops back on itself in ways that are confusing and maddening. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere; I’m still the same scared kid I was at 20, spinning my wheels and praying for something, anything – except now I have the added burden of feeling like I’m running out of time. I still have so much to do and, frustratingly, I’m not sure I’m much closer to knowing how to do it. Six months ago I thought I knew; six months from now I might think I know again.

Have you ever looked at one of those maps they have in malls and museums and airports and felt a strange thrill of grace when you see the arrow that says you are here? Of course intellectually you know that someone chose this specific location for the map and then marked that specific spot on the map, but even knowing this I find it hard not to look at those words and feel like I’ve been saved by a stroke of luck. They found me! I was just standing here feeling lost and they found me!

I’m trying to learn to live my life with the idea that wherever I am – whether I feel like I’m moving forward or backward or standing still – someone somewhere could make a map that says you are here. And I’ll know that even if it’s not clear to me right then, there is a path on that map that leads to the exit and there is a path that leads to my departure gate and there is a path that leads to the food court. And no matter what path I choose, I will eventually find another map that, comfortingly, tells me that I am here.

Everything has only ever been leading to this.

And this.

And this.

And whatever comes next.

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39 Responses to “You Are Here”

  1. Claudia Theriault's great grand daughter February 8, 2016 at 11:25 pm #

    You know what? One page of what is arguably beautiful writing is still writing. Journaling is still writing. I’m a designer. Due to whatever internal struggles I have had, and a few external struggles I blame on my kids, I haven’t done any personal artwork in eleven years.I had a meltdown about this a little over a year ago. My younger son estranged from the family about eleven years ago and it completely broke my heart. It ruined my enthusiasm for making art. I am tough on myself, like you are. Maybe this runs in our Theriault blood. I asked myself, what value do I have, how can I still refer to myself, airily, as an artist, when I don’t really draw anymore? Then I looked at my calendar which I have maintained on my computer for the whole eleven years, and realized that I have been god awful busy as a designer. Doing designs. For people. At the end of the day, even if it’s more production oriented than creative, there is still a great deal of creative in there. Certainly a great deal of skill. A lot of it is damn good. So, even though I haven’t been sitting on a stream bank sketching, I have been extraordinarily productive, and that’s got to be okay. As for the personal work? I made a promise to myself that I’d try to get to some of that this year. Motivation is a tough thing to muster up sometimes, but I am working on that. The first thing I needed to do was work on why I stopped drawing. I think I have done that. The next thing I will do, once I feel like I can break away, is take a class. That will get me in front of an easel, and force me to get my hand moving. I suggest to you that it might just be time to sharpen the saw. Take a class, where you have homework. Perhaps the obligation will get the logs unjammed. In the meantime, take it easy on yourself.

  2. gigoid February 9, 2016 at 12:09 am #

    Beautiful introspection; honest, reasoned, and, moving. I can tell you this; as a person who has been reading for 60 years, averaging a book a day…. you’re a writer, and a damn good one, if what I’ve read here is any indication…

    There will be blank spots; we all get them. One writer, whose name escapes me at the moment said, “Writing is easy. Just sit down at the keyboard, and open up a vein.”… For me, that is particularly apt, for all my ‘good’ poems (if any can be called such…) come when they bleed out….

    The next adventure awaits….

    gigoid, the dubious

  3. Angela Maree Barnett February 9, 2016 at 12:14 am #

    Love this. You wouldn’t be a creative being without asking wtf am I doing every now and then. It’s part of the creative process – to doubt, to scratch, to itch, to wonder. Sometimes the best work comes from a place of scarcity and conflict, a feeling that there’s not enough (insert: time, inspiration, reason, money) because forces rub up against each other. Friction creates action and movement. And that’s where the magic is. Every single first draft is rubbish, the fun part is the editing and crafting. I, for one, am happy you’re still writing. Peace.

  4. Vera Long February 9, 2016 at 1:20 am #

    Wow, you are a damned fine writer. I’m forwarding your fine essay to a writer friend of mine. I’m sure she feels for and with you in similar struggles. Keep on keeping on. It’s worth it!

  5. made58 February 9, 2016 at 1:50 am #

    Thank you for sharing. I really enjoyed this blog. Beautifully written and expressed. Thank you! Madeleine

  6. peabodyrusKate Landishaw February 9, 2016 at 2:09 am #

    Your writing is exquisite – beautifully formed and intimate, intellectually & emotionally satisfying at the same time somehow. It flows and uses real words. I wish I were a publisher, wish I had a platform to offer you to help you earn a living with your talent. Along those lines, which are all too closely related to “ability” to write, I fear, Tillie Olsen wrote a book entitled “Silences”, which explores the lost time(s) of many a major writer. Most pertinent to your dilemma is Willa Cather, who was almost lost to another silence, from a supposed great writer to whom she reached out for input. “Silences” is a rather old book – 1965-78 – and I’d be glad to give you my copy if you want it. I like it, but would rather it be of service encouraging a real talent such as yours. Let me know – I’d be honored to share.

  7. 1weaver February 9, 2016 at 4:46 am #

    i appreciate – empathise with – your struggles very much.

  8. Joey Adelaide February 9, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    Another beautiful and thoughtful piece. Love your work

  9. María Christina February 9, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

    You wrote as my inner self. You made me feel that I also had found my spot on the map.

  10. Amanda Martin February 9, 2016 at 1:33 pm #

    Reblogged this on writermummy and commented:
    I love this post.

  11. rpt February 9, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

    I always enjoy reading you. And since I’ve discover this blog, I am always surprise by the honesty and the commitment you put in most of your essays. I wish I could write like this and not be ashamed of my feelings— or, I don’t know, “ashamed” is not quite the right word, maybe embarrassed. Anyway, I just want to encourage you to continue to write because you have a real and obvious talent for this.

  12. Andrea R Huelsenbeck February 9, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    “I’m trying to tell myself that I’m not failing, just taking the long way around.” Were you feeling depressed when you wrote this? Because, honestly, depression is the result of believing a lie. Already nine people have written to tell you how this post has touched them. 29,000 people follow you regularly.
    You are not a failure. If even one person is changed by reading something you wrote, you have had a positive impact on the world.
    You earned one more subscriber today.

  13. Burns the Fire February 9, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

    We are here.

  14. pdxkraken February 9, 2016 at 4:50 pm #

    “One reason that people have artist’s block is that they do not respect the law of dormancy in nature. Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly. They have a point where they go dormant. And when you are in a dormant period creatively, if you can arrange your life to do the technical tasks that don’t take creativity, you are essentially preparing for the spring when it will all blossom again.”

    -Marshall Vandruff (said during a webinar done on Visualarium to advertise his upcoming online course on animal anatomy)

  15. maggiebird February 9, 2016 at 11:36 pm #

    I once heard lecture by meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal, in which he spoke about what to do when your meditation practice becomes dry and boring. Basically he said, live with that. Examine it. Turn it over and watch it. He didn’t promise that it would pass, or that you would work through it. Just know that it is.

    I think it’s the same for creative work. We all have periods when the work becomes dry, stale, unsatisfying. It’s hard, but I just keep working.

    Writing is hard. You do it beautifully; don’t give it up. This is my favorite line of your essay: “Life does not move in straight lines. It moves in lazy detours; sometimes it loses traction and skids sideways, and sometimes it loops back on itself in ways that are confusing and maddening.”

  16. robintgalt February 10, 2016 at 1:43 am #

    You are a fantastic writer. I really needed this today. I am here.

  17. simoneliedtke13 February 10, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

    You should try not to doubt yourself. I read your words and felt as if I was the one saying them, I can say that I know what you are going through. Especially as I suffer from depression and often use that as an excuse not to write. I have a thousand and one story ideas in my mind, but it’s like it you said – Once you open the word document the page just stays blank like the words don’t come to mind.

    Any sort of writing is still writing, and you shouldn’t give up. One day you will be able to look back and realize that you reached and perhaps even surpassed the milestone you were aiming for!

    Good luck, and don’t give up. You have true talent, and don’t let it slip from your grasp.🙂

  18. tomorrowdefinitely February 10, 2016 at 11:19 pm #

    I loved this. And this. And this. And whatever comes next.🙂

  19. syrbal-labrys February 10, 2016 at 11:24 pm #

    Continue to continue.

  20. Barry Rosenberg February 10, 2016 at 11:51 pm #

    Beautifully written, thought provoking and generally a comfortable and tasty read. Thank you

    Barry Rosenberg

    barry.rosenberg@hotmail.com

    ________________________________

    bellejarblog posted: “I used to think that my life would always move in a linear way, like an arrow rushing towards a target or a row of dominos collapsing in perfect order. I’ve never believed that everything happens for a reason, but I did think that someday I would look bac”

  21. Sukanya Roy February 11, 2016 at 8:20 am #

    Sylvia Plath being my spirit animal, the very least I love about your blog is its name. You’re inspiring!

  22. bernadettedales February 11, 2016 at 11:29 am #

    I needed to read this today! Thanks for sharing.

  23. Inthegazeoftheother February 15, 2016 at 3:10 am #

    This was the right reading at the right time. Thank you. I’ve been working on accepting where I am in my writing and elsewhere too after a similar trajectory. It’s because we have high expectations and won’t settle for less than quality that makes the writing so much more difficult at times until the right writing moments come. Good luck. Keep doing and being.

  24. cidra February 17, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

    This was just what the doctor ordered! I have felt in transition wondering where and when I did I get or go. My dominoes are falling and time running out and as I look back I do not see the order the plan. I feel it. At times strong and with a sence of direction and purpose and at others it feels like I am fumbling in the dark. Always towards a goal, and at times at a direction of a goal yet to be homed. It is nice to know another human struggles as well. Thank you

  25. Shawn Stickney February 21, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

    You know you’ve written something beautiful when someone else can find something which relates to them in their past or present circumstances. This really helped me to see that my feelings of inadequacy and aimlessness as a writer are not felt alone. Thank you for sharing this.

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  27. lethalbeauty April 6, 2016 at 4:34 am #

    Your paragraph stating,”Life does not move in straight lines. It moves in lazy detours; sometimes it loses traction and skids sideways, and sometimes it loops back on itself in ways that are confusing and maddening. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere; I’m still the same scared kid I was at 20, spinning my wheels and praying for something, anything – except now I have the added burden of feeling like I’m running out of time. I still have so much to do and, frustratingly, I’m not sure I’m much closer to knowing how to do it. Six months ago I thought I knew; six months from now I might think I know again.”, has to be the most relatable thing I have read thus far on WordPress.
    Being in my twenties myself I 100% get that feeling waiting and “praying for something, anything”.
    I started writing short stories and journalling when I was about 12 years old, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I sat down and wrote a short story myself. Ive journaled countless times since then but not a story in years.
    I decided to try blogging in hopes to get myself out of the rut and hopefully back into the writing groove.
    This post inspired me not to give up on my love for writing.
    Inspiration will come, sometimes you have to open a vein, sometimes you just have to open your eyes, and maybe read someone else’s blog.

    Thank you, keep on posting!

  28. fitlifeadventure April 10, 2016 at 2:55 am #

    A lot rests on faith right? And trust in turn. If you stay as focused as you can on the task at hand, then you are doing everything you can, no regrets and what happens happens. Nice post

  29. Maverick May 24, 2016 at 4:31 pm #

    Sofar I have read only two essays of yours and both have been amazingly good and inspiring

  30. phalcon123 May 24, 2016 at 4:42 pm #

    I would live in terror if I were just trying to extrude what is inside my own writing gourd. Writing for me is my mind as a rocket ship trying to escape the dumb gravity of my body and the stupid atmosphere of my mind. As for me I will try for the Sun.

  31. Will Carlson June 4, 2016 at 2:20 pm #

    The fear you speak of so well, of a possibly empty quiver, kept me from writing also for a very long stretch of time. It wasn’t even about possibly not hitting the mark, or being blown off course, I suppose–more likely it was of my trial attempt landing limply a few feet from where I stood. Where is “here,” indeed, and just as importantly what does it sound like? Very enjoyably crafted post.

  32. scribledree July 24, 2016 at 10:41 am #

    I can totally relate to what you have written and the way you have expressed the feeling is amazing. It’s like what I have been feeling for so long has been taken from me and been molded by you in such a great manner.

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