When I took a part-time job, it seemed only logical that I should use my new days off to Write the Novel, or to keep a proper blog, or something – because that was what I’d always said, that I didn’t have enough time.
But the months ticked over and I hadn’t written much of anything. If you play a stringed instrument, you’ll know when a string goes dead; it’s got a flat quality to it, and the note doesn’t hang in the air after it’s plucked. You’ve got to restring it, then. A lot of people won’t notice the difference, but you will.
A musician cannot abide a dead string.
That’s how my writing’s been for the past few months – lacking reverb, painful. I’ll wince at how the notes don’t hang together, how the writing lacks its shimmer and sends you away with an empty belly. It is not something that inherently needs curing; it’s just not what I want on my blog.
I’ve been circling around a post on Tolkien and history for twelve weeks like a maddened knitter searching for a dropped stitch. Where is the thread that ties this all together? Without the good kernel at its heart, it’s just ten pages of angry research, nothing we haven’t read before. It doesn’t have to be good, and god forbid I should ever make anything perfect; but it’s got to be honest and ring like a struck bell.
Writer’s block occurs when you try to draw up water from an empty well. It happens to everyone. I had just hoped it wouldn’t happen during my nine valuable once-in-a-lifetime months of part-time work. The only solution is to fill the well.
But first you must know why it’s empty.
So long slow days, usually alone on the boat, staring at the same bridge and hearing the gulls scream their undying outrage at the pernicious existence of ducks; or wandering around Bristol as if in a dream, looking at it startled as a just-born mammal. A tattooed city, polished like a pearl, with no apparent direction. Thinking to myself why am I not making the best of this precious time and beating myself for it. Avoiding friends. Knowing I’ve been in this mood before, but having forgotten what it means. The Well was empty – true – but why? What could be draining it, when I had such Time on my hands, enough time to write an entire book?
On Wednesday, when I was alone on the boat, edging towards three o’clock with hardly anything checked off my to-do list, and I felt the desperation clawing up my throat – WHY can’t I get ANYTHING DONE, WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ME – I saw the tall grey shadow.
Have you ever caught glimpses of your pet after its death? It happens most frequently with cats, who leave imprints of their cat-shapes around your home. You’ll see it in the corner of your eye, curled up in an improbable place, bending over the ghost of its bowl, or doing that imitation of a breadloaf where it always used to: gone when you blink. You might hold the door open for it, or drop your hand to caress a head that isn’t there, or see it watching you from the window as you pull out of the drive. It fades over time, when you remember that the cat is dead and vacuum up its last stray hair. It is only made of shadow and memory.
I saw the dog-shape, though I’ve never really had a dog. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t be here, I just love you so much and I’m so sad.
It wasn’t a real animal, of course. It was a metaphor, like the Rageasaurus. Remember the Rageasaurus?
Becoming a stronger person does not mean that you beat your feelings with a stick when you have them. It means that you stop, and hug your Ragesaurus, looking into its eyes and stroking its feathers until they go smooth, and tell it, “We were violated. We are angry. And you know what, baby? We are going to be okay.”
I was in a good place when I wrote that, with all the strings ringing true.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that was not the Black Dog of Depression, or the brightly feathered Rageasaurus, but a long tall grey shape, a shaggy lonesome shape, a wolfhound with tearful eyes, wanting to be listened to.
The Grey Dog Grief.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I’d pinned it down with the corner of my eye.
I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be here. The Grey Dog is nothing like the Black Dog, though it does weigh heavily on your heart; it apologizes for its existence, and the awkward amount of room it takes up with its long gangling limbs..
“It’s not like I’m even properly sad.”
I’m sorry. Oh, I’m sorry.
“You’re ruining everything.”
I’m ruining everything.
“Why do you have to show up on my days off?”
Oh, but I’ve been here for a long time! The Grey Dog, a clumsy metaphor, realized from my face that it had put its paw in it. Oh dear. I’m so sorry. I’m ruining everything.
“What do you mean, you’ve been here?”
I’ve been with you, it said humbly.
“How could you be with me when I haven’t seen you before?”
My Grey Dog looked at me sideways with a sighthound’s wounded eyes, expecting to be whipped. That’s how these metaphors and similes protect themselves, you see. They know I’ll beat myself for my flaws, but I wouldn’t hurt a dog.
Grief had been pacing at my side for a long time, but I’ve been Far Too Busy for him. I’ve been revelling in my overcommitment, working in a laboratory forty hours a week and more, renovating a boat, teaching and tutoring, taking classes, drowning him out with headphones and the gym, blasting him with music, moving my eyes every time he slunk into their corners. Poor neglected dog!
No wonder he’d been drinking from my well, drinking it dry: because of his great and sorrowing thirst. Because I hadn’t had time to slow down and cry. Because I’ve had great clenching sorrows dragging at my heart, and instead of treating them kindly and sending them properly away, I decided that it would be faster and less depressing to steamroll over them.
The friends and family that I’ve lost. Not to death, but as good as. The people I’ve cut from my life because they were slow poison, but whose loss I still ache from.
My mother, who will never find her peace or her justice, who gave me my life and whom I must protect myself from if I want to live.
My father, who has not come for me and who never will.
My grandfather, silent and sad as an old hound, dead now, no funeral. My grandmother, mean as a junkyard dog, dead the day Grief caught me; no mourning for that old cow, but no funeral for her either. How sad, that my last ancestors should die with no funeral because they had no family and no friends; thus passes the last Old Glasses, a name that will end with me.
Oh, my mother, how I wish I could be mothered, how I fear being a mother, how I want to be held and comforted, but how I hate to be touched.
And a thousand other little sorrows, stored up for a very long time, ignored and pushed aside and drowned until the well was dry. (You can say: these sorrows are such small sorrows and everyone else has much bigger ones, and what privilege it is to afford to work part-time, and so on – but you won’t say it louder, or beat me with it harder, than I was doing to myself.) How mean I’ve been to myself. As if being a clever little scientist means that one gets a doctor’s note from the Universe, excusing oneself from being slowed down by pain.
I opened my arms and my Grief came to me, and laid his long grey head in my lap.
I thought of how many months I’ve been punishing myself, for not immediately being a Great Writer in my time off, for creating these silent spaces where Grief crept in – as if the symptom was the problem, and not the clue.
“Things have been hard and we are sad,” I told my Grey Dog. “We are sad, and it has been so heavy to carry.”
He licked at my tears, which take away his thirst better than any writer’s well, as I told him that it was okay to be sad when you have things to be sad about; and the light streaming onto the new oak floor of our boat was as clear as a rung bell.