Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Writer Qua Shaman: An Investigation

It took a long-term interest in distance running to alert me to the awareness that I was more likely to be cranky or irritable on days when running was not an option. The purpose of distance running was to eliminate my tendency at age thirty-five toward a waist line with the same numbers, a purpose which over time became the more basic one of distance running felt good. In distance running, even when out for a run with friends or the occasional drag racing to see who pays for the beers, there is time to reflect on things. One such reflection was that I was more likely to be cranky or irritable on days when writing was not an option; another reflection was that I had now raised my daily need-to list to include writing and running; yet another reflection (which had the consequence of my running into a parked car) was that unless I assembled some remarkably spavined and gouty sample of humanity, I was never going to place first in a 20K or marathon. As well, such rewards as National Book Awards, Guggenheims, MacArthur Foundation grants, and the like were out of range. Yet I continued to run and to write for the satisfaction inherent in doing each.

Over time, both my hips have become supplemented with titanium inserts which pretty much had me trading in my reliable Etonic Streetfighters for trail shoes and swim fins. The writing still persists without interruption, although the kinds of reflection and self-inventory occasioned by writing brought me to an important understanding. It had been there for long years, waiting only for me to verbalize it as the fact it is. I cannot write with a neat desk. This may be a case of egg preceding chicken; then again, it may not. I have insufficient data or memory to discern if I have ever written on a desk that was neat or, having done so, what the quality of the writing done on a neat desk was.

I do have memories of being driven to such things as sharpening pencils that were already sharp, vacuuming already-vacuumed floors, cleaning imaginary dust, on a whim taking a shower, dusting for cobwebs, rearranging nearby books, making sandwiches, making coffee, eating said sandwiches, drinking said coffee, non of which worked quite as well, seemed suited for the job, you might say, as messing up the desk.

"How can you work in such a clutter?" one earnest applicant for an editorial position at a company where I had hiring powers once asked. To which I replied, "If you are to work here, you will be required to work in such a clutter." Her response was an immediate compression of lips, an expression that conveyed to me the sure knowledge that she might well restore order to the place but order was not the requisite here, accuracy was, which led me to question, "Could you be accurate in such an atmosphere?"

Took her a long time to answer, but finally, her answer was a resounding yes, whereupon she got the job, whereupon she infected a number of us with a neatness we were unused to, which ultimately resulted in a lowering of accuracy.

My current work area has a desk space approximately 13 inches width and 30 inches in length, with some immediate vertical storage slots, a few small drawers, and a few larger drawers. Being my mother's, it was more suited for her 5'3 proportions than my 6'3. I have actually perched a three-shelf book case atop it to keep closer to hand the books, ink bottles, and unoccupied Altoid tins I keep at hand, making the desk seem more snug and efficient. But it is not a neat work space. Unlike those remarkable sorts who are able to keep track of all their tools in such a near chaos, I do not know where everything is; much less do I know what everything is. Everything changes. Some days it seems more than comforting, it seems necessary for the ink bottles to be close. Other days, photos of my parents, of past blue-tick hounds, incipient bottle-cap collections, bottles of saline solution, paper weights, and scratchy reading glasses lurch to the forefront like armies of rebellious pawns abut to go awol in a chess game. A mouse pad with the insignia of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences at the University of Southern California seems to have more to do with long consumed coffee lattes than with the wireless mouse that waits offshore from it, like the barges that bore William the Conqueror's men to Hastings.

Closest to the laptop is a three by five index card with one word, intent, written on it, a reminder (subtle or not) of my own intent to write something about the intent a character must acknowledge before said character can undertake action in an authentic manner.

This distinctly unneat desk, if viewed properly, is a shrine to the lares and penates, the household gods of writing. They must be cared for, arranged in the proper order, perhaps even serenaded with a chant or two or even with one of my more lyrical strings of epithets when I cannot get the goddamned wireless printer to pick up the signal from the Airport Express, which has been configured according to instruction, then connected to the goddamned printer itself. This all relates to the ritual as well as the discipline and habit of writing. The writer qua shaman comes along, makes a few invocations, then begins the work or begins opening the portals to allow the inner writer to let the work emerge, either from within or from without. One of the best invocations is "Now where was I?" for it does imply having left some spot where one had been deposited, was it only yesterday, by the tidal nature of the writing process?

Am I so removed of defense systems and reason as to equate an untidy desk as the shrine to the work ahead? So it seems.


Querulous Squirrel said...

With little laptops among the mess we open a portal into a world of infinite space. My desk is literally my lap, which may explain my lack of productivity.

Anonymous said...

Even when neat my desk is chaos. Everything spills over and piles up and runs amok. Sometimes I find things. Sometimes I don't. I still get work done. Accuracy is something else again.

Rowena said...

Always a mess, yet surprisingly organized. When I was a High School teacher, my students thought they would take advantage of my mess, and slipped late papers into the piles.

Alas they had not figured on my obsession with charts, graphs, notations and organization and were foiled. Those heaps may look like messes, by you can't slip an unmarked paper into the already graded heap. Mama will know.