Thursday, February 23, 2017

Unfinished

I am hungry for art lately, hungrier than usual. I am overflowing with words for the first time in a long time, not because it’s easy to write right now (on the contrary, I’m having a terrible time finishing anything), but because it’s harder not to write, to keep it all inside. I have always been this way; I have always been unhappy when I am not writing. I fold in on myself, unable to express the world inside of me and therefore, somehow, unable to connect to the world outside as well.

One morning a couple weeks ago, I woke up in a funk. I’d slept terribly, my neck was stiff from falling asleep at a weird angle after working too late on a project with a tight deadline. I read too many distressing articles from my phone while still in bed. Finally I got up, made coffee, and started sorting through my inbox. My usual morning routine. PledgeMusic had notified me that The Shadowboxers had written an update about their recent shows, including the one I went to a couple weeks ago in New York, and I clicked through and watched a video of them singing at the meet and greet I attended. The tumult in my head slowed down, and I was able to pay attention to one thing, for a few minutes. Three men, a guitar, harmony - a song.

A song cannot change everything going on around me. It cannot fix what is broken in the world. But it can sustain me when I am struggling to believe that beauty and joy are still possible, when I am struggling with my own ability to create.

I am at my desk, now. I am working (on this, on other things, on everything). And I am thinking about that weekend in New York, about how it feels to watch and listen as someone else does the thing they somehow seem made to do, as no one else can do it. The uniqueness of a performance, the way some of us come alive on stage. The writing life, the creative life, is hard, and little parts of my soul that are sacrificed to survival are restored when I get to be in that space with other artists. It helps me keep going. It is why I want to keep going.

It is strange to say, at the most successful point in my career so far, that writing has never felt more difficult. My book is coming out. But what if people hate it? Even if they don’t hate it, it will inevitably not live up to many readers’ expectations. Good reviews may be just as strange to read as bad ones. I am entering a new phrase as an artist, and that is unsettling.

I am proud of what I made. I am also scared of what comes next.

I am trying to write new things, now, and while I find myself spitting out words semi-regularly, I seem only able to finish articles and reviews for other people’s deadlines. That is, assignments from editors, rather than my own heart’s work. In some respects this is okay, because at least those deadlines keep me working, and the only way through these kinds of walls is to keep writing until the breakthrough happens.

I find myself missing the casual nature of my work when I first started blogging, when it felt like practice, a way to get used to being read by someone other than a professor. A blog read by ten of your friends is less scary than submitting to a magazine (or a hundred magazines) and being rejected (98% of the time, in case you were wondering). I am not a big deal, but I am no longer totally obscure, and the stakes are higher. One only need experience the horror of having something you dashed off in a couple of hours go viral once or twice to realize that your unfinished thoughts will follow you whether you like it or not. I consider myself lucky that I stand by most of what I’ve written, even as I continue to grow and change as a writer. Nonetheless, I write with a greater degree of self consciousness now than I ever had before.

Sometimes I think my biggest flaw is that I want so badly to share with you only my best work.

But that work will never really exist, will it? It always lives off in the distance, moving further out of reach just when I think I am getting closer. Maybe I prefer it that way, always chasing after bliss. After all, as much as I love sharing the finished work with you, I don’t love that more than I love the actual hours at my desk. I love words. I spend my life with them, and my life is a good one.

Part of the reason I chose to pursue an MFA is that I wasn’t sure what my best work would look like, only that I wasn’t there yet, that my writing wasn’t what it could be. I wanted to be pushed. I was tired of compliments. I knew I was capable of more; I still know that. I am learning that the hunger I feel will never be satiated, a hunger not for fame but rather to have made something good, to grasp the ideas in my mind and weave those disparate threads together into something that moves you. Or stops you in your tracks. Or both.

Weeks ago, on my way back to my hostel after listening to The Shadowboxers play a stunning encore medley of songs from artists we lost in 2016, standing on a freezing train platform at 1:00am in Queens, I recalled how I felt on the few occasions when I’ve given a public reading (the closest to that kind of a performance I will ever get, my Hope College coffeehouse covers of Jennifer Knapp songs aside). I am always a wreck beforehand, questioning my entire life’s work and existence, but once I’m at the mic, once I start to read my own words with my own voice, the me on the page melding with the me embodied before you, the nerves dissipate. It only takes a sentence or two before I am transported to a world where there is only me and the page, doing the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I was old enough to name my desires for my own life: to create.

Nothing else feels the way that having an audience laugh in all the right places feels, the way the air seems to change as everyone holds their breath at the same moment, the communal exhale as an essay finds its way home. I started off writing in private, for myself, but I love writing for an audience, I love that I get to share. I am still unused to it, and I know that I will hesitate to click “publish” on this meandering blog post. But I promise I will, because I am just getting started.