What It's About
Today was a hard day. One of those days where I wonder why the heck I do what I do. I’ve talked a little bit before about the challenges of a debut year and I often blog about the ups and downs of the actual writing process. Anne Lamott says it best in Bird By Bird and this is just one of the many, many keen observations in her treasure of a book:
My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested…when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time.
The combination of trying to do the work of writing combined with the business of publishing and the intensity of our social media culture can wreak havoc on the soul. It can, in fact, shred you to pieces. It doesn’t leave a lot of space to create and find those moments when you “feel better and more alive.” One person I spoke to today about the anxiety and pressure of it all used the word “maelstrom,” which is far more civilized than my term for it (begins with “cluster”). The other person (my husband) said: “Imagine Hemingway tweeting!” in his best how preposterous! voice. Now, given Hemingway’s prose, I actually think the medium would suit him, but my point is: it is impossible, for me at least, to write novels and be on the Internet for any reason whatsoever. I’ve tried to be proactive about this in various ways, such as entering a writing cave. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Boredom or curiosity can often get the better of me. And some days it feels like the Internet is Four in Divergent (except not hot) and you’re Tris, waiting for him to throw that dagger, except the Internet doesn’t miss on purpose and totally stabs you in the face. I got stabbed in the face today (thanks Google Alert) and there were tears and bourbon and fist shaking at the heavens. But in between all of that (read: before the bourbon because it was noon and drinking at noon except at brunch is inappropriate), I got on the subway.
Now, normally when I’m on the subway I’ve got my head in a book, which is both good and bad for a writer. Good because, you know, reading. Bad because it’s a major missed opportunity to people watch. Ain’t nowhere got people watchin’ like the New York City subway. We’ve got that locked down. So, I’m feeling pretty awful and after listening to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” on my walk to the subway, I just keep my earphones in when I get on the train. I am too upset to read, which is saying a lot because I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series and I’m on my favorite book (#3, if you want to know). So now I’m blasting Sia because she gets gut wrenching pain and also I feel like she’s Nalia’s spirit animal and so I listen to her when I’m working on my jinni books. Anyway. I’m listening and…I start looking around. And I see this guy. Everything about him is breaking my heart and I can’t stop sneaking glances at him.
He’s in his forties, I would guess. A tall, thin white guy with gaunt cheeks and overlarge ears. He’s got a Yankees cap on and it’s very new and a little too big for his head. This makes me sad. Like this too-big hat was the only option he had. It gives me this intense desire to hug him. He’s very clean, but something about the way he’s dressed reminds me of guys I’d see from some of Boston’s rougher neighborhoods when I lived there, out of work union guys, or the cast of The Fighter. He’s had some hard knocks, I think, but he’s trying to see his way out of it all. He’s wearing athletic shoes—clean Jordan’s that look like they belong on a teenager’s feet. He’s not trying to be hip or cool, it’s more like they’re hand-me-downs or he got them for a decent price at Goodwill. There’s something about these older white guys in their athletic shoes. I often see them on the subway, these particular guys. It’s not just the shoes, it’s the telling details, the parts that add up to the whole and the whole tells you they’re down and out. I think he was. It was the combination of his clean out-of-style jeans and the thin leather blazer over his T-shirt—the kind of blazer you might find in a thrift store for a few bucks, but not remotely hipster or retro-enthusiast approved. It all screams that he’s trying to be presentable. For an interview? For a kid he hasn’t seen in a while? I wonder if he has an AA chip in his pocket.
And his face. His face. Other than me, he was the saddest person on the subway car. He just radiated misery and anxiety. He stepped on the train, hurried, like he was going to miss it even though he’d been standing there when it pulled into the station and no one was getting out when the doors swished open. He sat down and clasped his hands together, hunching over a bit. Then he just stared into nothing, like he was playing something incredibly stressful to him on a loop, except for the occasional moment when he’d suddenly be aware of himself, shamed and apologetic for taking up space in the world. He acted like an imposter who was about to be found out at any minute. He wasn’t listening to music on a fancy phone like I was. He wasn’t reading or talking to anyone. No baggage in his hands, but he was clearly heavy with some.
I wanted to pray for him and I don’t even do that anymore, mostly because I’m not really sure anyone’s listening. So I just felt for him. I sat there and acknowledged his sadness, tried to honor it with my knowing of it. I see you. Of course, he wasn’t aware of that happening and maybe all of this is presumption on my part, putting him in the role of Down And Out White Man Trying To Make Right. But once I’d noticed him, I started noticing everyone. The girl across from me with two guys: she was wearing too much make-up and I thought about how much effort us women put into how we look and how it’s so often for other people and so damn tiring and disheartening. I saw the middle-aged woman two seats down, her eyes heavy: she was exhausted, trying to keep hold of her bags and clearly just wanting to lie down. But it was noon and my guess was that she was on her lunch break and probably had five more hours of work to go before she could squeeze back onto the train at rush hour to come home. When I got off the train, there were so many people crowding the platform and I saw them all and was aware, really aware, that everything inside me—all my cares and loves and dreams—those things were inside each and every one of those people. The complexity of our species, the fact that life is so goddamn hard for everyone no matter who you are or where you’re from just floored me.
I kept seeing and thinking and feeling and then it hit me: this is what it’s about. This is what my job is. I am a writer, a storyteller. My tribe’s job is to bear witness to what it means to be human in our particular time on the planet and we try our best to tell our collective stories, or at least our own story because even our individual experience will call to someone else’s. It’s not about book deals or how many followers we have on Twitter or whether or not we get great reviews. It’s about the work, it’s about osmosis: the world seeping into us, taking root there so that something will grow, something we can give back.
I’ll never know that man’s story, not really. But now I’ve told it. I’ve set it down, an account of a human being on a train speeding beneath Brooklyn. And someone might read that account and think about a man they know who’s like that or just remember that there are men like that out there, who get sad on trains and where too-big hats and are maybe trying to get up after being knocked down. And whether that story is real or not ceases to matter. Because it’s our story now. Osmosis. Bearing witness.
As I left the station, I still felt sad an overwhelmed, but I knew I wasn’t alone and that I had a story to tell. That’s what words do: they remind us that we’re not alone, they give us something to grab hold of in the dark.
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