There is something to be said for writers working in the realm of Reading 2.0 to redraw personal boundaries. I haven’t posted anything since Christmas for a damn good reason, and it’s because the Internet was too much with me. After a lovely holiday with my family in North Dakota, then three days stuck in, yep, balmy Minneapolis while New York shoveled its way out of 16 tons of thundersnow, I found myself feeling like the human equivalent of overcooked meat. Distracted, wanderlusty, and prone to snapping at birds for chirping, I knew I needed to change something within my immediate control.
My iPhone provided part of the answer when it vomited my Twitter stream at me last week, and I wanted to chuck it in a pollution-blackened snowbank. All those faces, handles, and mico-messages amounted to mental taserings—fuck, fuck, fuck! I came up with the rest of the solution by shutting off the Apple crack, banishing it to a secret pocket of my backpack, and walking home from the L. Then it came the way classical music fills a room, making it bigger; then leaves that same space, shrinking it down à la Alice.
During college in Minnesota, shuffling to my first morning class in those frigid ’90s winters, I would enter these states of enchantment. My imagination, not distracted by a cell phone or even the white noise of a prairie wind blowing down the middle of campus, would run rabies-dog-rabid, to New York, Hong Kong, Dublin, and London before circling back to Ralph’s Corner Bar, my weekend hang-out and the site of many a memorable local band’s performances. The magic was so much that I didn’t notice I’d been freezing until I was thawing out like an alpine lake in a desk, stunned by the sudden appearance of a professor to teach me how to write.
A lot of what ended up in The Nowhere in the Middle was taking shape in these solitary walks, two years before I moved to New York and three before I started at The New School. Beyond the characters of Jilly, Niles, and Patrick—my spiritual triumvirate; the guitar, bass, and drums, if you will—I was working toward achieving a particular emotional tenor similar to what you find in Carson McCullers’s incredible The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Snow and cold as amplifier of loneliness and self-revelation; elements and sounds as essential supporting characters. I am grateful for the mental space my Midwestern surroundings and the pre-Aughts granted me, even though at the time I was constantly bitching about being bored. “Stupid kid,” I think now. “You didn’t know how good you had it.”
But I do! In accidentally re-creating the heightened, regenerative sense of privacy from my coming of age, I learned something I should’ve known—or maybe relearned after stupidly discarding it as a weakness. My writer’s mind, while it thrives on the hyper-stimulation of social media, movies, gossip, and people watching, requires equal amounts of unplugged contemplation to accept and incorporate the relevant noise and cast out the meaningless static. At my job, we call this editing. It’s got to happen before you write, too. The experts don’t recommend attempting your first novel until you’re over 30 for a reason—most human beings need time to accumulate, then weigh experiences. We just aren’t born emotional geniuses.
I know my meltdown isn’t a new phenomenon—writers have been seeking refuge from The World in rooms of their own for centuries, before ole Virginia coined the phrase. The only difference is that now, those rooms have multiple doors, often all open at once. We are encouraged in the name of self-marketing to kick them open and holler down corridors at strangers when we should keep them shut tight at intervals until we’ve figured out what the fuck we’re trying to say. Too many messages, outgoing and incoming, fool us into thinking we’ve logged our hour of writing for the day when we’ve actually avoided solving the mystery of what motivates us to tell a particular story.
I’m kind of proud to have undergone this freakout (note: it does not mean I’m a social media hater). I must say, too, it’s massively helping me through this latest revision process. I’ve drafted a leaner, meaner opening chapter that gets right to the heart of the central conflict, and I’m easing into the complicated middle bits with an enthusiasm and glee that is unprecedented. I am tempted to thank the band Morphine, whom I recently rediscovered on Lastfm, but I am going to thank me and my little sister Kelly instead.
- “The Night” and “Cure for Pain” by Morphine
- Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan