A Book Is Not a Tyrant and Other Metaphors Too Numerous For Good Taste
I woke up at some stupid o'clock hour like 3:17 am two nights ago. I'd been wrestling with horrible ideas in a dream — I was literally physically wrestling them as though the thoughts in my brain could embody themselves in aggressive, gormless tyrants — and I woke up mid-body roll covered in a hot, fast sweat. I thought about writing out what had happened in that dream and several others I've had recently on this same theme, but then I was hit with another idea, one that would not attempt to throw me down into a half nelson, thankfully.
The idea I had was this:
Documentation of what happens is just that, documentation. What happens is the true meat. In other words, my published work will simply be my collection of proofs of what came before it, either the work or the lived experience.
I know, I know, this seems obvious. More than obvious, even, it seems basic. For me, though, it was anything but basic, and for a number of you writer types out there, this idea might help you, too. Let me flesh it out a bit.
Throughout my life, I have been narrating everything. I began narrating as soon as coherent sentences were set solidly within my mind. Had I the structural wherewithal at three years old, I would have been putting periods at the ends of my thoughts like I do now. Everything that happens feeds a narrative that builds as I go. My days and nights walk behind my ongoing internal accounting and commentary. I roll phrases around when they are pleasing or too awkward, and I write down some of them when they feel like invitations for more to follow.
This internal narrative, and my sometimes external documentation, has felt like the purpose of what happens in my life. Rather than my actual, lived life being the true value, I have behaved as though it is the food that feeds my mostly private deconstruction and reconstruction of facts and impressions and feelings. The documentation has been my primary goal. My life is just food for narrative.
I hate writing that down. It's terrible. Regret schmegret, though. Let's move on.
When I woke up from that dream two nights ago, still slick from wrestling with my own mind, it hit me: what happens, what lives and breathes and moves in this awe-inducing concert called life is where the real value lies. Life is where I live. The documentation is just what it is: it's the annual report at the end of the fiscal year; it's collected fallout in a memory box, it's the rainwater gathered in a rain barrel behind the house. The fact of the full rain barrel is not the point. The point is that it rained. The full rain barrel is just the reminder that it rained, the proof, the cool and sweet thing we can dip our arms into up to our elbows and remember how wonderful it was to see raindrops kick up puffs of dust when it began to wash the heat from the air.
Why is this idea important to me? Because it knocks the much-vaunted idea of The Book off its pedestal.
I am a writer, and, since I read my first book at four or five years old, I have wanted nothing more than to publish my words. Books, though. They're fat and daunting. There are so many words in them, and they need a great structure. There is so much room for waste, but there is no room for waste in a good book. How could I ever do it? What do I have that would ever be important enough for paper and ink and binding glue?
This heaviness has crushed more creative work out of me than any other horrible thing in my life. Cancer, depression, alcohol addiction? They've got nothing on this ridiculous idea about The Book I've carried with me. It has cast fear and doubt on every creative decision I've made about my writing for decades.
But I think I could finish a book now, assuming I've got one in me, because this new idea I had two nights ago has let me know that a book is only documentation of what came before, the ideas that happened and the words that came from them. It is a collection. It is my audit report. It is proof of the work, and I am already doing that work. The true meat is here and happening, because I've been writing for years and years. Future books will just mark the moment when a particular section of my work is done.
Sometimes a truly basic idea can change a whole world.
And just like that, I don't have to wrestle with this tyrant anymore.