So I haven’t written for several weeks. Sometimes, life is like this: A top-heavy shelf of books leans, imperceptibly, a little more every day, until a passing truck causes it to kneel and spill its entire load of literature onto your cat. Somewhere in the course of making your favorite quiche, which you do every Sunday, you randomly summon a demon by accidentally adding too much salt. Seventeen bricks fall out of the facade of the abandoned baker’s shop. The pattern they make on the cracked, weed-sprouted pavement looks exactly like your mother’s face the last time she screamed at you over nothing.
The improbable life event that has kept me from writing put someone in the hospital. I can’t really say more, except that the patient is recovering and everything will eventually be all right. If you are sending prayers, thoughts, wishes, or regards, thank you. I’m sure they help.
Being in a hospital for an extended stretch is strange. It wasn’t always. I used to spend a lot of time there as a visitor to my mom, who is a reasonably important clinical pharmacist close to where I grew up. For a long time, I assumed I’d end up in a hospital, too. Professionally. It never occurred to me that I might one day be a patient or a patient’s family member. I was an extremely lucky kid and I remember only a few childhood emergency room visits, one for me and maybe one for my sister, both minor issues. On days that my dad and sisters and I happened to find ourselves in town, and sometimes if my dad happened to be deployed or taking a class, my mom would park me in her office until she was available. It was easy to entertain myself. I think the hospital had the first Internet access I ever encountered. I also liked the posters on the walls. Unlike the candy-colored body pictures at my school, these were unabashedly graphic and educational. By the time I was ten, I could explain the circumstances of an ectopic pregnancy with reasonable accuracy even though I had no idea how the condition was initially achieved. Random, I supposed. A lot like appendicitis, which I also knew about. My mom’s colleagues, with whom she shared the office, seemed to know a lot about everything. One of them was a computer geek whose screen savers must have inspired the entire genre of political news comedy. Featuring strongly in my memory is O.J. Simpson’s van slowly rumbling across the screen, chased by a cadre of law enforcement vehicles, themselves being chased by gleeful news media. That’s how long ago this was. I was so young that I still considered hospital food a treat.
I guess it was inevitable that I’d eventually have these fond memories overwritten by nightmarish, anxious, sleepless ones that smell like bleach. Over the past month, I’ve spent a decent amount of time at a facility that is both very different and exactly the same as the place where my mom used to show me the giant cardboard compactor and the employee pharmacy. It’s big, clean, and impersonal. Its recent remodel focused on making some more “human” spaces for family to sit and stare anxiously into space, which is what we spent our first week there doing. We knew the topography by the second week; by the third, we were sick of the entire hospital cafeteria menu. After that I ate lentils and rice, because I had to go back to work and didn’t have the time or interest to cook good food. Now, for the forseeable future, I sit at the library being fake-cheerful to patrons during the week and commuting back to this place, which is an hour and a half from home, on the weekends. My wife stays in Hospitalland full-time until everything is normal again. I get a guilty reprieve.
I dislike how quickly I readjust to ordinary life once I’m gone. I know that my wife is still trudging along the background static of anxiety and boredom unique to hospitals – I talk to her several times per day, worry about the patient, bug her to eat – but it’s shamefully easy to return to my normal orbit and priorities. There is no silver lining on this experience, but this dissociation is a valuable data point. I’m not forgetting how it feels, nor are my concerns for the patient fading. But when I’m at work, I experience twin awarenesses. The awareness of the library surpasses my concurrent awareness of the hospital. My awareness of our apartment and our friends seems almost inappropriate. The hospital is still there. I come back and it strikes me that I’ve somehow run away.
So I write about the twelve-hour days in waiting rooms, the way the hospital swallows vast stretches of time whole, the differences between recovery and healing. I write about how the things that we associate with health – fine food, stimulating conversation, fresh air – are not what you get when you have to stay in an ICU for weeks at a stretch. Your instinct identifies them as unhealthy places. They’re mechanics shops for the autonomous biological robot that is you.
And I return. This weekend, next weekend, for the forseeable future.
I don’t typically struggle for writing topics. Nor do I often find myself without something at least distracting to say. But I used to feel a seize of fear in my chest when I sat down to write. It felt a little like being shot with a pong pong ball, and it would happen as soon as I tried to sort out my thoughts.
I was afraid that I’d manifest whatever I wrote.
The idea must have come from an R.L. Stine story I read when I was a kid. I should amend this by explaining that R.L. Stine was strictly off-limits in my home because his work was “too scary.” I didn’t find this to be the case. Clive Barker is too scary for kids, and that I know because I used to read his stuff at the library when I was about eleven. But R.L. Stine? He was the Stephen King of my seventh grade classroom. (Apologies to Mr. King, if you’re reading. Please sign my cast; I got it punching a dude for badmouthing you.) And the Goosebumps masterpiece about the typewriter that transformed the written word into reality wasn’t exactly horrifying. It just…stuck. Like a piece of gum between a molar and a capped tooth.
In fact, I started using this idea for gain before I became afraid of it. I was early in high school when I started featuring the same girl in every story. You know the age. Oh, she’d look different, have a different name. Different superpowers, because I was a teenager and I was obsessed with superpowers. But her voice was always the same, sassy and devil-may-care and brash. And she always ended up being best best best best best friends with the first-person narrator. I had a crush. Not on the character, although considering the success of Stephanie Meyers’s sparkly vamps, maybe I should have considered it. No, my crush was on the model for my Mary Sue, another girl who was in my English class and who I really barely knew.
Writing her into my life kind of worked for a minute. We ended up in a sort of long, meaningful staredown between bells, more a glower than a smoldering gaze of desire, but still. It was eye contact! Sustained, no less. Then the glare of love ended, and we never interacted again. Yet even at fifteen, I was an optimist. Ten percent of my desire had come to fruition! Even if I could manifest a fraction of what I wrote, I was clearly possessed of extreme power.
Thus I embarked upon my mission to get everything I ever wanted through the power of hyperbole. I wrote down my most profound desires and super-sized them by a factor of ten. The first-person narrator became the smartest person in the world. The first person narrator acquired fifteen superpowers in a single lightning strike. The first person narrator traveled to the edge of the universe and defeated first the Devil, then God, in separate climactic sword fights. The first person narrator met another best best best best best friend, this one sweeter and kind of a gossip, who had a weird habit of getting attacked by undead pirates or space pirates or psychic pirates or what have you. Pirates were big at the time. Then the FPN would swoop in and save her. Although the FPN always succeeded, the gossip just kept on getting caught. The FPN swooped in again. And again. And again. There were rewards for this, but I wasn’t old enough to really know what those would be so I just strongly implied that they would be the best best friend rewards ever.
Then the gossip moved away.
So FPN met a lanky field hockey player who joined her in her escapades. Oh the escapades they had! The FPN and the athlete fighting the alien hordes side by side, double-handedly liberating entire oppressed planets!
Then the athlete met a boy. Who I loathed. Of course. Though briefly tempted to work my wrath upon him with my pen, it came to mind that the athlete would probably be miserable as a result and I abandoned the entire idea before I’d even begun.
While this pattern was frustrating re:available interesting girls, I saw no indication that my strategy wasn’t otherwise sound. I was progressing through the belt system of my karate studio, for example. I wasn’t exactly ready to fence with and slay God, but I also wasn’t bad in the sparring ring.
As I got older, my concerns changed. I still wanted to get the girl, but I started to run into endings that I couldn’t tie up. What happened after the FPN and her winsome best x5 friend went home hand in hand? Were their parents chill with their sixteen-year-old daughters being besties x5? would it be cool to hold hands in school? I really didn’t know. I was afraid to stop writing in case the stories crashed and burned once I’d put down my pen, and I was afraid to keep writing in case I had to get 10% of a good outcome and 90% of a crappy one. What’s 10% of a held hand?
At this point, I was faced with the morbid possibility that I might have to write my life in grand form forever. What would happen if, having taken control of my fate in this abstract manner, I suddenly just dropped the joystick and let it have its head? Would it fizzle like a video game, or would it careen to its doom like an airplane?
My stories got more outlandish as I ran out of ideas for what I wanted to do. New girls appeared and they fought with the old ones, many of whom I couldn’t get rid of because they had become friends. I also wasn’t sure what would happen to my ex-crushes if I shuffled them out of the plot. Would they fall into some kind of void? It was either keep them in or face my feelings for them, and that was an increasingly obscure and difficult storyline. There was no good way to resolve the women in my life because, frankly, I never gave them a chance to resolve themselves. It was weirdly terrifying that I might have been a character in some of their own sympathetic endeavors. Better to get my FPN involved with someone less problematic.
So within a year at college, I had the inevitable unproblematic boyfriend. Let me clarify: I still pined after women. But I was determined to get the story into an easer track. Here’s where I made my mistake, the mistake that all magical writers eventually make: I started rewriting myself to fit the plot. I’d forgotten to write the FPN – a critical layer of security, in case you want to try this at home; FPNs contain safety valves that don’t allow a characterization to affect your own innate properties – and had begun to perform an Escher-esque feat of editing that was both painful and nowhere near healthy. I recast the character known as “me” into a devoted heterosexual sidekick in a plot whose outcomes focused less on adventure and heroics and more on…well, on the ideas and interests of the new main character. It had to be that way. For the plot to work.
At the same time, I got this crazy idea that all would be well if I could just not be the dyed-in-the-wool freak that I felt I was. Success hinged on staying extremely still and not upsetting anyone. That meant that I couldn’t do a lot of talking. Since I talk when I think, that meant that I couldn’t do a lot of thinking. I dumbed down my classes and skipped anything that looked hard. I avoided developing a personal sense of sartorial flair. I wrote to formula on homework, but at night, I was a demon of over-the-top order and regimentation codified in massive columnary feats of wordsmithing. My boyfriend, poor man, was my main prop. I had no ambition anymore except to be a cog, a forgettable member of the discard pile that took up space as inoffensively as possible until death. But that ambition was huge. It went so hard against my personality that the effort to conjure it was monolithic.
The gears began to grind. I was stretching the fabric of reality and my own sanity, and my soul squeezed out like water from a rag. My fingers flew over the keyboard to make it right, and my efforts got weirder and weirder. I turned into a dragon and so did he, because there couldn’t be a me without a him to keep me from the me who wasn’t enjoying this. I died and my angry ghost possessed a volcano that could never blow up because he was Pompeii and everyone I loved lived there. Ideas started hitting me like bugs on a windshield – or maybe more like windshields on a bug. Babies in the road. Busses slowly crushing my rib cage. Tiny women in cocktail dresses climbing the walls of my dorm room as they hissed at me malevolently. And all the while me laughing, smiling, insisting that I WAS FINE and HAVING FUN and THIS WAS GOOD. I wrote faster. I wrote all night, in secret, deleting and rewriting again and again and again.
The crash came hard, and with it came the consequences. But it also destroyed the chassis of the life I’d written, and I’ll always be grateful for that. Any half-decent witch will tell you that it’s harder to undo magic like this than it is to do it in the first place. I didn’t undo it so much as it broke into a billion pieces, leaving me to start over. If ever there was such a thing as a lucky break, this was it.
It took a year for me to write again, and when I did, I wrote product summaries of flip phones for $10 a pop. Then I did some spot grammar editing for administrators at my grad school. A few words about a used Toyota. Someone’s annulment petition. I didn’t really consider writing writing. Fiction was obviously out of the question. I wasn’t even willing to go in for third person after the previous debacle. Not memoir, because I was concerned that I’d accidentally change stuff. Even a ten percent shift in something that’s already happened could be catastrophic. I even managed to date a little. Eventually. Cautiously. Carefully. Not gonna lie: It was a little scary feeling like I had no control. But how much had I ever?
Ten years later, I sit in front of a screen filled with some of the most personal information I’ve published in years. It’s not quite magical. I’ve worked in several layers of protection based on some basic spellwork, some Strunk & White, and some old Burroughs lectures. I think it’ll be all right. For those of you who came here for more cookies, well. Sometimes even cookies are tough to chew. You probably know about that. Who hasn’t tried a little storytelling sympathy in their lives? Who hasn’t been burned by it?
If ten percent of what I write from now on comes true, let it be this: magic never gives you what you don’t already have. So work that cosmic energy in your head, don’t read too much into it, and take a deep breath. You’ll never kill God, but you can probably take out a few demons.
Can’t bring the funny this week. I tried to talk about why, but it came out garbled and I didn’t think it contributed to a positive discourse.
So I’m just going to leave this here. Trevor Noah may have had a rocky start, but I think he’s really grown into the Daily Show and I don’t think anyone could have summed things up with more tact and confidence. Also, check out this incredible resource kite for white people who want to stop contributing passively to the problem and start becoming part of the solution to racism.
Come on, fellow white people. Let’s stand up for our fellow Americans already.