Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Shadow Line

I don't know what I'd do if I didn't write.

As long as I have a book going, it's like there's a corner of my world that has a nice, comfortable fire burning in it, and I can go there whenever I want.  I might not always have a good time, any more than I always have a good time in my living room, but I'll usually have a good time.  Or a good enough time.

Life comes at me in fits and starts, and what happens at 3 PM often seems to have nothing at all to do with what happened at 11 AM.  It's like a bunch of mismatched beads thrown at me at random.  When I'm writing, that continuity of effort, that ongoing flywheel of energy -- that lock on due North in my imaginative facilities -- provides a sort of string that helps me link these disparate things together into a continuity.

I tend to evaluate my life in terms of the book.  I have a bad night's sleep and it's likely to be a difficult writing day.  Someone invites us to dinner, and I worry about cutting short the writing session.  A conversation becomes a game of flash cards with words and phrases rocketing through the text in my mind, searching for resonances.  A face in a restaurant, all chin and no forehead, will be in tomorrow's first paragraph.  A 50-minute jog is an excuse to free-associate, to write dialogue in my mind, to ask, "What if?"

This may not be healthy.  (Not the jogging, the rest of it.)  Surely, from one perspective, the writing process is a kind of filter that distorts my view of things, maybe even gets in between me and "real life" in the same way a camera does when I'm traveling.  I see a temple, I point a piece of machinery at it.  I see someone make a hand gesture, I point my book at it to see where it'll fit.

The difference is that I've learned not to carry a camera.  I haven't yet learned, nor am I sure I want to learn, not to have a book coming into being somewhere in my mind.  (The quotation marks around "real life" in the paragraph above were automatic.)  The fact is, I barely know what real life is any more, unless it means life without a book somewhere in the background, bringing everything together in the same way the sky does.  When I'm outdoors, the sky is the unifying principle; it's what touches everything.  When I'm writing, the book is.

My friends are used to my glazing over in conversations.  They just say, "He's writing" and go on with their talk.  My wife has learned to move through a room without leaving a big wake.  Sometimes, anyway.  Sometimes she just figures her life is as real as mine is and sits down to talk.  And I try to be good about it.

Last weekend I met an extraordinary woman who is in the last few years of a twenty-year project.  She's creating an entire physical world in miniature to house a story she made up -- a complete, three-dimensional visualization of her imagination -- and ultimately the project will be a stop-action movie.  I may begin with an idea and words and sentences and take a year to tell a story; she begins some days with a feather, another day with scraps of cloth or a whole new metaphor for some detail in the film, and she takes decades.  And she's learned (this is dazzling to a solitary writer) to throw her creative world open.  People come in all the time to glue and paste and cut and design.  Makes me feel like a piker.

But you know, we live (most of us) the way we have to.  Art shapes lives just as certainly as lives shape art.  There's no right way or wrong way, except not having the courage to follow the creative path when it opens up in front of you.  And even here, I'm just dithering: maybe the people who turn their backs on that path live more solid, less spectral lives.

But if those lives are anything like the way I feel when I'm between books, no thanks.  I'm most comfortable with one foot on either side of the shadow line between imagination and everything else.  Things seem realer that way.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. How great to feel the comradeship in your words. It took me from my dream of being a novelist at age nine till I was 68 years old to become a published writer of fiction. Knowing that I continued to write through all those years of earning a living and taking care of my family, people have asked how I found the strength to persist. The truth is I could not have stopped if someone held a gun to my head.

    Are we wired that way? Did we get a taste of the drug in school and become addicted? I have no idea. All I know is that everywhere I've looked since I was nine years old, I've seem something that started me forming phrases in my head.

  2. Tim,
    "fits and starts". That's me! I can be an artist sometimes. I can be a writer other times. I cannot however, call on either at will....Something hits me, and spills out on the paper, or canvas, or sketchpad....sometimes these creative runs last a week, a month, or just a few hours at a time....and then I am creatively void for a while. It can be frustrating, or exhilarating! But that's me!

  3. This was lovely. I like your image of the sky as a "unifying principle." What a wonderful peace making idea.

  4. Wonderful post Tim. About as good a description of the almost reverie like state that comes over some of us when writing that I've read. My wife sometimes thinks I only speak to her when I'm mid-book when I'm trying to help work out a plot point. Sometimes she's right. When there's no book, it all feels a bit aimless, though I'm far more in the here and now. Though looking at what's happening in the here and now, escaping into the world of writing seems fine by me.

  5. A beautifully written little essay Tim.

  6. Tim--

    I have to make sure to turn my answering machine on while working. Years ago at dinner a friend told me she could always tell when I was writing when she called.


    "When you're writing, you have a way of saying 'Hello" that sounds just like 'F-- you and die.' "

    When I accused her of exaggerating, the whole table cracked up; turned out it was a unanimous verdict.


  7. Tim,

    I want to thank you for saving my relationship. I made her read your post accompanied by, "See, I'm not the only one who tunes [you] out. It cannot be helped, it's like a genetically directed reflex." And she believed it.

    What was the fee again that we agreed upon for your doing me this little favor? I just hope you charged Lenny more.

  8. Jeff forgets I'm married to a journalist, so it's not a one-way street.

    My disappearing into novel-trance oblivion is matched by the times when I call her, she hears my voice, says, "I'm on deadline," and hangs up.