I’ve thought of writing as an escape for a long time, so I was happy to bump into this in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “creative writing is communication through revelation — it is the Self escaping into the open.”
Prison 1: you’re a baby. The Self has only a few simple tools for everything it wants to say. It climbs out of the well of babydom, ascending by little more than a scream in each fist.
Prison 2 (a little bigger, but still prison; Self would stay here forever if it didn’t have writing): you’re older. You’ve got better tools now. The face alone communicates more than anyone would believe if they only heard about faces secondhand. There’s vocabulary too; it joins with your ability to string words into messages as cheerful as popcorn strings or as gruesome as a necklace of shrunken heads. This is power.
And finally, writing shows up. You try it out and realize it communicates the Self well. It promises to free it from silence. Writing is an advance as dramatic as the leap from screaming to stringing words together. Imagine the things you can say, the mysteries you can unlock, the stories you can tell. So you try it again, and again.
Your first efforts are successful. People say you have talent, important people. Your excitement is so high it should frighten you. It leans against a wall that keeps terror on the other side — sometimes both press their ears to the wall, listening. You whisper, “I might be a…” though you don’t dare say the word. You think it: genius.
Then the first great fear arrives: what if Self runs out? What if writing outpaces and there’s nothing left to say? Self and writing run hand and hand, epic teammates (David and Jonathan; Elijah and Elisha; Thelma & Louise), a heaven’s run, there is no need to rest in heaven, therefore onward! until running isn’t high and fast enough; writing springs as if attempting to fly. Imagine a plane rising in a soft lurch, but your stomach momentarily hangs near the ground, spinning on nausea’s rubber rope; Self is left behind like this, except it won’t eventually catch up. Now your writing is alone and someone accuses you of having “nothing more to say,” and of being “a one-trick pony. He said everything in that first story. All the others are just the first one again, putting on different clothes.”
But the Self doesn’t run out. Thank God. Your fear was silly, nothing more than a pipe-dread. It’s gone. Now, however, there’s an empty space where the first fear lived. Quick, fill it with positive thinking — but it’s too late.
The second great fear says your writing isn’t strong enough to capture Self. It might get close, but not close enough. Now you see clearly those genius efforts of your past were toddler steps, jarring and lock-kneed. The excitement from the old days is sober and lonely. It taps on the wall to see if its old neighbor is still there. Terror taps back. It does not stop. You realize this isn’t tapping, it’s counting. You’re 20 years old, you’re 30, 40, 50, 60….You wonder, “Have I gone about freeing Self the wrong way?” You look at the tunnels you’ve dug around Self’s prison cell. You find a thousand, the longest of them is a quarter mile through solid rock, but like the rest it stops in a ragged cone, rumpled, embarrassed. Those last few hammer-swings were less than halfhearted. You have a chilling thought: if you had stuck with one tunnel, you would have broken free by now, years ago…and life is only so long — terror taps again, in love with counting you. It’s counting down.
You write. You’ve figured out several important things. Yes, writing does free the Self. But free to do what? Once released, Self isn’t free just for romping through cities, pushing over buildings to have a laugh, and it would be fun. Self’s escape is for helping others out of their prisons. If it doesn’t do this, they will stay where they are, and since you know what staying is like, you want to help. The Self must be freed, but freedom is not its job. Freeing is. Break down cell doors with true words, and teach digging with saving words.
Where to start? Where to get dead-serious and really start? Not with something new; that’s an old trap. You pick a tunnel and say, “You. You will be the way out,” because someone once said a kind word about this particular project. At first the tunnel’s antique air comforts you. Nostalgia is there, a lantern. The marks in stone look prehistoric, but they look like your work, like you, and you welcome yourself back to them. There you are, old friend. And there’s good stuff here, witheringly awful stuff as well, but the good stands out in bright streams like veins of silver and gold.
But the deeper you walk, the more problems you see in the abandoned project. Your hope crowds close, afraid, it starts to strangle, and nostalgia’s light has whimpered back to a low flame, warm enough only for your hands cupped around it, not enough warmth for the rest of you, or enough light to work by, though there is light; it bleeds between your fingers in dull yellow blades on the walls, like claws — you begin to wonder, maybe I left this place long ago for a good reason. The air is toxic here. The stone is abnormally stubborn. I think I left because I wasn’t meant to move this ground. Not me. I should go back and think about who I am a bit more — what ground is mine? — then I’ll know where to go.
Self is a dreamer, but this isn’t enough. It sees itself as a wonderful creature, a city-eating monster, but in the deeps of the rock, gravity pushes hard. Self may be weightless, flying in dreams, but the work burdens with ropes, enough to cut Gulliver down and hold him; and the work tags the Self with enough sandbags to lower even a zeppelin as big as the moon. In the difficulty of the task, you stray into thoughts about the generally acknowledged giants of Self — Faulkners, Nabokovs, Woolfs, Updikes, O’Connors. You forget the old help you once believed: something like, “easy reading is hard writing,” and instead you believe the greats owned ground studded with cut gems. They simply picked them up and handed them over for study. Now those were Selves.
You fall flat. It’s amazing how small a monster as big as cities can feel, how invisible. An ant steps onto him now without noticing the seam.
Why do you continue? Momentum, for one. Imagine all those gatherings and the question, “How’s the writing going?” You have to lie. Or maybe you tell the truth and it shakes free an acquaintance’s confession: they too gave up on something great once. You have a friend.
Momentum, yes, but also remember when you first met writing, how wonderful, how you — in love and afraid — held it carefully, as if it was the first flame. You do remember. You think of the giants again, fast packs of Nabokovs and Woolfs, but you’re brave enough by the memory of loving writing to compartmentalize them, give them a pen to play in, you allow these great ones to exist in the space of your life, like suns — get too close and you die, look too long and you’re blind, but out there, at the edge of the map, monsters are charming.
And there’s you, in the home-country, you toddling, dreaming. You don’t give up, because you’ve worked with the rock long enough to finally see the pattern in your surrenders — at a certain level of difficulty, you quit. That’s it. At level-six toughness, you run. Now you know. You wish you could have learned this in two or three abandoned tunnels, instead of a thousand, but a lame line helps you here: “It is what it is,” and you add, “I can’t go back, only forward.”
And you do.