I recently turned 49.
Not long after, I had this dream where I hid my kids eyes as a middle aged (49? You be the judge) woman jumped from the roof of a building in front of us, impaling herself on a street sign that read Melrose, and losing her right hand on the way down. It was a disturbing dream, made all the more poignant when I remembered that Melrose is the name of the diner back in Chicago where I used to write for hours and hours next to a gigantic chef salad. For the price of a chef salad I bought myself a writing studio and I was there at least three days a week and countless nights, working longhand.
I had forgotten about the Melrose until that dream.
Around that time I did another thing: I started reading Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir of her early years in New York.
Talk about an artist. You think she looks like a man? Whatever. (That’s Patti speaking. I channel her now. But only in my head, and here on this blog.) You don’t like that she tells the truth on paper and reads it out loud to whoever cares to stop and listen? That’s cool. Keep walking. I love the idea of living at The Chelsea Hotel , writing songs and collecting little bits to make jewelry for my maybe gay boyfriend. And I think I may need to tattoo my knee.
So, because of the dream, and the number 49, and because I had fallen hard for Patti and wanted to impress her, I put together a little writing group.
The three of us started meeting at Jude’s apartment because there are no
pesky adorable children, so we can think and muse, and drink wine if we want.* Or we can write. We do all of these in equal parts, at least so far. I didn’t tell anyone else about the group or our goal of writing 30,000 words our first month. The truth is that I knew how it looked, three white middle aged women in the San Fernando Valley, rediscovering themselves with their ipads and snacks from Trader Joe’s, so I kept it pretty secret. What can I say? I was embarrassed.
Patti Smith would never be embarrassed. But then, she probably wouldn’t have joined a writing group. Although, maybe she did. I haven’t finished the book. But she certainly wouldn’t have spent
this much any time thinking about what people thought of her writing practice.
Also, she would not have been scared to read her work to real live people, but I was. My writing pals and I agreed, in the beginning, to read at least some of our work out loud to each other. I could hear their thoughts: poor Maggie, what with that huge desire to be an artist and no talent. It would quiet the room. Who would say it first?? It was too dangerous, so I simply refused to read.
Here’s the thing with a tiny writing group. There is no fading into the background. If you’re lucky, and have chosen your circle wisely, they call you on your shit. They will insist that if one of you wears a bikini then you all wear a bikini. (we never have done this, it’s a metaphor— how writerly!).
So, I read. And my face got hot and my voice shook and I couldn’t get quite enough air, and that was it. That was the worst it got and now I can almost read out loud without drinking wine. Happy Birthday to me!
But there was still the problem of the 30,000 words.
That month, I tried to keep up with my word count. We’d worked out how many words we’d need to write per day, and I obeyed the rules.**
The light in my dining room is perfect for writing, and I clocked a lot of my words in that room, with it’s bright green walls and yard sale dining table. I do sometimes have to make my grocery list before getting down to the actual work, so I decided that a grocery list counts, and that upped it a few hundred. Then I found that all the seats on the dining chairs were loose and must be screwed back in, otherwise I could have gone flying off onto the floor at any moment and that would never do. And I often need Chapstick before writing, so there was that.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her. Sitting on the stone steps near her apartment, drawing people to her because she was fucking on fire with her pen and paper! Of course Jimi Hendrix chatted her up! Of course Janis Joplin confided in her and Sam Shepard fucked her. She was the real deal. Well. Some of us have to watch the little word count thingy and just cheer it the hell on as we sip our green smoothie. It’s a different time, Patti.
About ten days in, I was falling behind. I bargained with myself and thought a lot about what actually constitutes writing. It’s like Clinton asking what the definition of the word “is” is. Since grocery lists count, then so does journaling, right? (Obviously!) What if I type wordswordswordswords over and over? (Oh shit— that didn’t have any spaces so it only counts as one word!) All the while I am doing complicated figuring in my head. I see a sentence that needs to be cut in order for me to make my point more clearly, but I don’t cut it because then I’d be down one, two, three, how many words? Twenty-seven!? (Twenty-seven words? Forget it— no way.) The description of the baloney package stays in.
What would Patti think? Did she ever feel blocked? Did she feel like a fraud? A narcissist? Did she ever just want so badly to give it up and go home? If so, she doesn’t speak of it.
I never made my goal of 30,000 words that month. The big chunks of uninterrupted time were too few and the distractions too many. My dining room, with it’s dusty bookshelves and family foot traffic, was never going to be The Melrose Diner. I thought of packing it in. It was hard to schedule our group meetings and, when we did meet, we sometimes talked about writing more than we actually wrote. As Amy Poehler says in her book, “Talking about the thing is not the thing. The thing is the thing.”
But I also thought about that dream, the woman who had given up, and that it was so awful that I didn’t want my boys to see…
Now, I write at my kid’s basketball practice. I write while waiting at the skate park. I write when I’m supposed to be running errands or returning phone calls or having my lip waxed.**** And I do it knowing that, most likely, I will not end up with anything that will have a life beyond what I give it here. I started this blog, a form of “reading out” that fits my life right now and I have to think Patti would totally dig my process.
*** Patti Smith lived among some pretty heavy drug users but when she used drugs she did it mindfully, and not very often, as far as I can tell. She steered clear not because she judged it, but because she had work to do, damnit. The gals and I drink wine most times we meet, just because it’s fun and tastes good. In this way I am nothing like Patti Smith and I’m cool with that.
**Another way Patti and I are different. She worked and wrote and created with absolutely no need for rules or homework assignments. Jesus, she’s a badass.
*** Although, maybe not. Maybe she’d hate it and laugh at me and throw her box of baby teeth (she has one– isn’t that weird?) at me. That would still be pretty awesome, Patti throwing something at me.
****Do I really have to tell you what Patti would think of the choice between lip waxing and writing? No. I didn’t think so.