There’s this movie from 1945 called The Lost Weekend starring Ray Milland. It’s about an alcoholic writer, Don Birnam, who has writer’s block and after years of being sober, he crumbles and goes on a weekend bender in New York City.
Don gets kicked out of bars and falls down stairs. When his girlfriend cleans out his apartment of all the bottles she can find, Don starts hiding them in ceiling lamps and tying them to the side of his apartment building with strings. But he does get sober. In the final scene, Don picks up a drink, looks at it hard, and drops his cigarette into it. He tells his girlfriend he is going to write a novel called The Bottle and that he’ll write for all the people out there just stumbling towards another drink.
You don’t have to be an alcoholic to identify with Don Birnam.
When you lose something and there’s that void, and you can’t fill it. When you keep trying, but you keep falling short. When you are exhausted, but you can’t fall asleep. When you love someone and it ends. When you start to fall apart. When you get to that “only behind closed doors” place and it feels hopeless. I think that’s everyone sometimes. But we want to believe – and we should – that like Don, we are moving towards our heroic ending.
My Dad told me the other day that I finish the things I start. When he said it, it gave me pause because it wraps everything up neatly. Like once you decide on something, you aren’t scared anymore and you just slog away at the thing until it reaches it’s neat little Disney-esque Happy Ending. But it’s more like this. It’s more like my friend who told me recently, “I wish someone would just tell me what to do.” That sums me up well sometimes.
If you dare me to do something – like jump off the Broadway Pier at a wedding reception or drink a bottle of soy sauce in two minutes or less – for enough money, I’ll probably do it and I’ll end up shattering my ankles or overdosing on sodium. But for – THE UNCERTAINTY!!! – sometimes I wish there were a bravery cocktail I could drink. Like a little Beatrix Kiddo vodka with a splash of Hilary Clinton bitters mixed in with some superpowers, and of course, Yonce’s bulletproof confidence. And maybe a little Katniss Everdeen “I will actually kill you if you screw with me. So don’t push it.”
As a writer, I do a lot of starting over. A lot of leaping in the dark. For every post, every feature I write, in hours I face another blank page. In the hard times, I try to remember my namastes and paper bag breaths. I remember this has always been my dream – since cradles and Kindergarten. There’s a special kind of magic in dreams that stick with you like that. Like they were there all along – on the 1 to Laguna Beach when we first got our licenses. At the frat party at Stanford. This thread that has a stitch in everybody you’ve been and each of the plans you’ve made.
Sometimes I get too caught up in the mechanical nature of things, and I start thinking that wonder and beauty are just icing on the cake. Like they are these extra things I should dip into from time to time. But when I write, I remember that wonder and beauty are the cake, the candles, the icing, the whole damn thing. Writing lets you see with your heart like a child does, and then you recognize that there is so much that you cannot see. Then you can find the miraculous in everything. You close the cover of your book, or turn off your laptop, and you’re the best kind of drunk. Right there – right in that space – that’s where I want to live. Because writing doesn’t feel like extra to me – it feels like getting back to the center of things. The truth of things.
I love to write. Really. More than I can say. But it can be scary sometimes and oftentimes it’s lonely. I mean, the UPS guy definitely thinks I’m insane because every time I answer the door it’s in toothpaste-stained pajamas with unwashed hair and it’s like, I don’t know, 3 p.m. Kidding…kind of. Or how about how all of my first drafts are horrendous. Always. Talk to another writer – it’s like writer science. Everyone says the same thing. And if they don’t say that, please send me their address because I need to eliminate them. And it doesn’t get easier. At least this is what older writers say, and I believe them because they have like, Pulitzer Prizes and book-based movies and shiz. Oh and you’re super vulnerable. Like you’re putting your heart on some Mayan altar and your Facebook friends from the interwebs are coming (or not coming) to eat it. I’m not complaining, but that dream where you are naked onstage in a room full of people? That naked person was actually a writer with a blog. True story.
I think being flexible is an important part of being brave. We can’t always be planning and sinking our teeth into things haven’t happened yet. If we do that – we’re going to have regrets. We’re going to wish we worried less. And if you get rejected or you have to change course, you have to be ready for that, too. Instead of clutching on to things, you let them float by you and you don’t take them too seriously.
It’s a lot of pressure and stress to not know if something or someone is going to work out, but we have never known what was going to happen. I have never known what was going to happen. For me, personally, now that reality is just a little more obvious.
Too often my life is later – like maybe this weekend when I get everything done. I am so much in my head, that everything is postponed. And that’s why I love writing. It requires a different kind of seeing. When you write, you have to take a look – a good hard look – at what it’s like to wash dishes and pay bills and question your self-worth and fight the negative thoughts, while raising two kids and writing a novel and fixing your marriage, and all the while, still trying to remember to notice the pops of color from flowers on San Diego’s streets.
You grow when you write, because you have to look – not at the machine of Life at it’s most dark – but at what’s behind that. At all the invisible stuff, and all the things that take your breath away. The 9 to 5’s and the bills – sure, what you write is sometimes about that – but the words end up being something else. Like a sense of Life. It ends up being like a holding up a mirror to the interconnectedness of it all. It’s like injecting passion into an experience that’s redlining.
Writing, or any art really, is remembering what we often forget. That the things that drive us aren’t alarms and deadlines, but the search for love, courage, consciousness, and a destiny. It’s a sense that your breathing – your heart pumping blood – those aren’t givens. Those are miracles. That there are so many things that you cannot see, and in that invisible lies what’s most important.
My maternal grandmother, oh man, she is a character and a half. She writes checks made out to psychics for my birthdays, and if you ever went to her house, you’d see sage burning in little ceramic bowls. I’m not saying I believe everything – I won’t even cop to anything (not on the interwebs) – my grandmother believes, but she’s awesome and she’s right about something. The way she orients herself to the world is like it’s magic. Like there is so much that she doesn’t know, and that life is amazing. That’s how I want to act. Like the world is magic. Writing is how I do that best. It’s how I reconnect with that.
I get the goosebumps sometimes because whatever I’ve written has (finally) started to work. Or I turn the feature in and get the check back, and I know I’m doing it. Debbie Millman said, “If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.” And Debbie said this after she made the mistakes. After she didn’t become a writer and she took the sensible, reasonable route. And sometimes that route is tempting, especially when you’re considering selling your eggs to fertility clinics (hyperbole, people) and you’re uploading photos of your designer duds to EBay. But these are the only lives we get. And we don’t have time to make up for everything later, and that’s what gives me courage. That’s my own little bravery cocktail.