When The Lights Don’t Shine As Bright
The other day, David Bowie came on in my car. My mom’s funeral ended with Bowie. I didn’t handle it well.
It’s almost six months to the day since my mom passed. If I post this on Monday the 24th, it will be six months exactly. For the most part, I’ve found my way back to some sort of normality. I’ve rebuilt a daily routine; I’m seeing my friends again; work has developed a rhythm. I’m taking long rides on my motorcycle, and slowly reducing the size of my perpetually optimistic stack of books, and hitting the gym (almost) every day. I am, if we’re speaking to the day-to-day experience, doing pretty good, actually. But there’s one thing that hasn’t come back.
You see that above? Those two short paragraphs? That’s just about all I’ve been able to write aside from the necessary (and less creative) work emails, proposals, and tech specs. For whatever reason, sitting down at a keyboard to write a blog post, essay, short story, or script - usually my way of finding peace, calm, and order to the world - just isn’t working these days.
I’m 38 years old, and I joke that I’ve been writing “since I was a zygote,” but it’s not far off. I’ve been writing since I was four or five; typing since about the same. Growing up, I used to use/abuse reams of dot-matrix printer paper to tell stories large and small. I wrote my first short story in second grade, and hundreds since then. I wrote my first screenplay when I was 16 (it was a 230 page romantic comedy where almost nothing happened - I wouldn’t recommend reading it.) From a personal standpoint, regardless of how I’ve changed as a human being, writing has been the single constant throughout the entirety of my conscious life.
My dad’s a storyteller. (This seems like a hard segue, but it’s not.) If you meet him for longer than five minutes you’ll realize that much of his personal connection with people comes from being able to spin a good yarn. They’re personal experience, mostly, but I’d be lying if I told you he didn’t have his own fictional stories that he wanted to craft. I inherited some of that (or perhaps absorbed it through osmosis.) If you talk with me, I’ll often reach into my big ol’ bag of stories and pull out whichever one is most closely related to the topic at hand. Sometimes the best way of getting to know new people is just telling a good story.
I got that from my dad. What I got from my mother was my writing.
My mother was a writer through and through. Never professionally, but there were a hundred points in her life where that could have been the case. She was an editor - freelance and professional - more times than I can count. She reveled in the power of books, collected them by the thousands, and rewarded us with trips to the library. While I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies until I was 15, I could always check out any book from the library that I wanted. No matter my choice, my mother always defended my choice from the raised eyebrows or occasional overt warnings from librarians.
I think I was 11 when I read Jurassic Park. My mom actually recommended it to me. If you’ve never read the book, it’s a lot more scientifically-focused, as well as a lot more … visceral than the film. She’d read it, and thought I’d enjoy it. I did. And then I spent that summer carving my way through every single book Michael Crichton had written up until that point. (The Andromeda Strain and Sphere were my favorites, aside from Jurassic Park.)
She was a voracious reader, an excellent writer, and an appreciator of the craft of writing. She could - and would - talk for hours about Shakespeare, and her opinions on who he was and why. In many ways, being my first editor for most of what I’d written before high school, she taught me how to not just string words together, but how to do so in a coherent way that told a complete story like a complete thought, from beginning to end.
She was an excellent teacher. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’d never rewritten an essay until rewriting an essay was the actual assignment for one class in in college. Scripts, yes - the structure rewards callbacks and retroactively planted clues. But essays - well, for all intents and purposes, every single essay I ever turned in from grade school until the third year of college was a first draft, written straight-through from beginning to end. Often the night before it was due. And I’m also not exaggerating in saying that I’d never received anything less than the very occasional A- on anything I’d written until college as well.
Here’s an example. (Yay! Story time!) Sophomore year of high school, we’re assigned a book report on a book that must be more than 250 pages long, and the report itself must be at least 5000 words discussing the plot, characters, themes, and how the authorial decisions on the first two reinforce the last. We’re given two months in which to accomplish this.
The Saturday before it’s due, I sit down and start reading Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor - a 750+ monster of a political thriller (Barrett’s adult review: “Eh, it’s okay.”) I read all day, into the night, and half of Sunday, finishing the book around 2 or 3pm Sunday afternoon. After a quick break, I sit down at the 1986 Macintosh SE in my room that I use for writing (kinda miss that thing, now that I think about it) and bang out 8500 words and 12 pages in a single writing session like I’m Stephen King during the coke binge years. I turn it in Monday morning. Verdict? 99 points out of 100; set the class curve.
So what’s the point here? That I’m a decent writer? Well, I like to think so, although high school essays aren’t a great comparison to quality adult writing (insert Twilight joke here.) The real point is that writing has always been easy.
Writing has always been something I could just sit down and do to some minimal acceptable level of quality. Regardless of the form - and I have my personal preferences - it was always something that just sort of happened. How do you write an essay? By writing it. It sounds reductive, because it was very literally always as simple as that. The concept of writer’s block was anathema, because the solution to writer’s block was to write, and it would just … happen.
Writing was as easy - and as difficult to explain the precise processes - as waking up.
So six months later, I find myself sitting here, early on a grey and overcast Saturday morning, 1000 words into the longest thing I’ve written of my own personal accord (written straight-through, as is my wont) and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that it clicked. Why I hadn’t felt inspired lately. Why I didn’t feel like I had anything worth saying. Why it’s been so hard to take an idea or a story or a character seriously, as I stared a hole through the blank white screen of a MacBook Air.
My mom used to read this very blog. That isn’t a continuation of the thought above; it’s a complete aside that hit my brain about 4 seconds before it hit the page. She used to call me up after I’d posted something, and give me her thoughts. Mostly it was that she enjoyed what I’d written. Often it was that she didn’t approve of my … extensive use of commas (I like to use them to convey speech patterns - an incorrect, but - I argue - elegant solution to directing the pacing of a distant and disconnected reader.) Sometimes it was to hear the rest of the details that I didn’t post publicly that she knew, via mother’s intuition, I’d only semi-skillfully avoided including. Occasionally it was that she thought she should have gotten to hear that particular story first, before having to read it on the internet like the rest of the public; a sort of friends and family premiere, if you will.
But so far as I can tell, she read everything I ever wrote in this space. I didn’t write for her - I’ve only ever done that once - but I like to think she took pride in being a big part of how and why I write the way I do. That she could see her influence and voice in mine. That, commas aside, she appreciated the writer I’ve become.
Some day it will be easy again. Some day it will feel good again. Some day I’ll be able to sit down and find the words.
Some day the lights will shine as bright as they used to. Some day summer will finally come to LA. Some day I’ll be able to listen to Bowie again.
Some day normal will be normal again. Some day I’ll be inspired again.
Until then, I’ll do the only thing I can do: I’ll set aside an hour; I’ll sit in front of a blank page; I’ll see what happens.
Some day, it will.