The Writing Life

It’s nearly dawn and the first light has appeared above the old townhouses. I’ve pulled another all-nighter, inadvertently, not realizing how the hours were slipping past in front of my laptop. The fact that my days and nights have reversed, yet again, leaves me feeling out-of-sync with the world, and a strange sense of regret. I crawl into bed, at last tired enough to perhaps fall asleep. Closing my eyes, I try to calm my thoughts. But the poem I’d been struggling with since I returned home at midnight is still flickering at me like a cracked lightbulb.

If there’d been an invisible observer in my room, it might’ve looked to him or her like I was doing anything but writing. I answered emails, revised an old boyfriend’s artist’s statement, made suggestions to someone’s special fields reading list, looked through a recently-purchased anthology of new poets. I caught up on my favourite TV show, tidied my room, updated Twitter. Yet hovering in the background of my desktop, was the open word file with my most recent draft, and at my hand was my favourite pen. While I did everything else, the poem floated like amniotic fluid within me, waiting to take shape. In between emails and podcasts loading, I rewrote the previous stanza, eliminating a phrase, hoping to see my way through to the next stanza. Hoping some line would carry me through to another day’s of work, and make the whole exhausting effort worthwhile.

The poem itself was one I’d abandoned years ago, because of its difficulty. It was about a train trip I took at nineteen across the country from Toronto to Vancouver, a city I’d never lived in, to start university. The trip took three days and three nights, and I’d never done anything like it before. I’d never been so alone, nor embarked on a journey that truly felt like my own. Whereas flying to one’s destination often plucks you out of your familiar orientations, the mind is more accepting of how train journeys moves you through space, and of the ratio of time required to distance traveled.  The poem attempted to capture this sense, and at the same time wonder about the previous generations of Canadians who had also become enamoured of the west, and of my own parents’ journeys, which I had heard of so often they seemed to overshadow my own. No wonder I had left the poem unfinished. When I realized it had a place in my current project, I excavated my notes and began afresh.

Just as I sighed into my duvet and cleared a little space in mind, a line jumped in to fill that vacuum. I repeated it to myself. It sounded good. It was the next line, the line I’d been struggling to hear. It had come to me like a gift, like so many gifts had come before, in the same way many others had snuck their way into my inner ear. I repeated again, hoping to memorize it, so that when I woke I would still hear it. I was truly exhausted now and didn’t want to get up again. I’d turned off the space heater and the room was getting cold. But to run the risk of forgetting it– I’d wake in agony, contemplating having to confront the poem again and feel and crawl my way through to the next stanza. There was no help for it. Like I had done many times before, I hauled myself out of bed, angry and annoyed. Did tax attorneys feel the need to do the same when a thought struck late at night? Or a veterinarian? A cable-repair service person? With these ungrateful thoughts, I opened my laptop again and re-awoke it, cursing the chosen profession that allowed me so little rest. Few people understand how physically taxing writing can be. And why should they? These complaints don’t fit in with the popular images of what a writer, or even a poet, are. They are best not expressed. No need to stultify or scare friends and family who encourage the writer much like a crowd might buoy up a long-distance runner from the sidelines.

I looked at the lines that I had repeated to myself, now having form on the screen. Yes, it was the right number of syllables, and it worked. There was no sound of applause or congratulation, no banners or prizes for this small triumph and this private work. Only the quiet of the room and the grace of the morning light.

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