Sunday, December 4, 2011

For Love of Common Words

For the past month Owl has been haunted by this line about an artist from John Galsworthy's To Let:

"The quiet tenacity with which he had converted a mediocre talent into something really quite individual…"

Owl read this and flung Galsworthy across the room. Lines about mediocre talent have a way of searing themselves into Owl's mind where they throb for weeks before fading into a dull ache that never quite disappears, in the way of things you don't want to believe but know to be irrefutably true.

Owl went back through all of her work and read it exhaustively. Every so often she ran into a decent paragraph buried in the detritus of her stories, and the shock of it made her come away satisfied. There's something here worth fighting for, she told herself, and for a week she was happy.

Then one of her friends sent Owl a story to critique.

It was good.

Not good in the way of school assignments that get an A, or stories that are shown off by proud parents, but good in the way that Owl read it and felt the gaping hole in her that is always searching for beauty and wisdom wrapped up in a few elegant words, the part that is always hungry and rarely fed, that part read, and said this. This is good.

Owl read and her heart broke open in her chest.

It's one thing to be held in the thrall of some dead genius. The space created by death still allows for self-delusion—another ten years and I'll be able to do that—but it's another thing to realize belatedly that you have rubbed shoulders with genius, cleaned kitchens together and stayed up until 2:00 in the morning discussing spoons.

All illusions are stripped away. There is yourself and there is genius, and there is the distance between you, and you know with an awful certainty what you are and what you are not. And then you look into genius's face, and it's an ordinary human face, two eyes, nose, cupid mouth, spattering of freckles, and you peer at the rooms and roads genius inhabits and wonders what it is she sees that you don't, you ask yourself a thousand questions about innate talent versus hard work and in the end the all boil down the same wretchedness: Why not me too? Why was I passed over?

Because it's hard this love, this obsession with words. It demands a life, hours spent pouring over books, days spent spacing out in company, years at the table scrawling over sheets of paper, ripping them up, starting over, again and again, and yes, again. You quit your job, you give it your life, and in return there are no promises, no comfortable salary, no accolades, nothing but the casual amazement and pity of strangers.  You write? Oh. It's a hard life you know. Doesn't pay.

Yeah. Owl knows.

But there are the things you can choose in life and the things you can't, and then in the realm of things that just are, there's love. Sometimes that isn't enough, not compared to a salary or to that firm nod from strangers, You're a clever one. You made the right choices, but in the end, you pick up and you carry on because it was never about choices. Not really. Just about living.

You love and you live with it. But it is hard to know, in the end, that your love, this love, exceeds your ability.

How do you deal?

For a week, Owl was a ghost on the street. The misery went deep, cut to the bone, and was impossible to voice. What do you say anyway? I love. I am not enough for this love. The pain is killing me.

Owl spilled it all out over lemonades to another friend, one who does not write, and the friend blinked and said:

But why does it matter? Can't you both be writers? You love writing. Nothing can change that.

And Owl said, yes, but—and she thought of the sheer perfection of that story she had read, the way it opened a door into a new world where snow spilled from a pewter sky and men and women exchange cracked valentines standing on wet pavement, and she thought of her own work, brightly painted, cardboard to the core.

Yes, but—it hurts. My God, it hurts.

A few days later Owl checked her e-mail and found another story with from the same writer friend with a note attached. This story was a glorious mess, elegant bones, mad eyes, and a crazy titling grin tripping over its own feet. It had the most goddamn perfect ending Owl has ever read.

Help, the note said.

Owl panicked. Owl was truly out of her depth. Owl was still heartbroken and could not, would not. Owl shut her computer and looked out the window where the sky was a hard blue eggshell. There was dinner to eat, there was Chinese homework, and China full of winding side streets and alleys that Owl still hasn’t explored, and there was that story. And what it could be.

Owl went for long walks, Owl sat in a café downing mugs of milk tea haunted by bones and eyes and perfect endings, and Owl roosted in a library for hours dreaming of stories, muttering over her computer, cutting and rearranging, hissing grow grow grow at the screen. When she finished the stars were burning holes in the sky.

In the end it was pathetically little, some fat trimmed here, a few folds rearranged there, one or two observations, but it was everything Owl had to offer and it came from something deep within Owl that will not be denied, no matter how she rages and roils with the sick jealousy of being second rate. It came from the overwhelming love of written words.

You love something.

You do what you can.


  1. I recommend:

    1.) Refer to yourself in first-person pronouns! YOU CAN DO IT!

    2.) Psychedelic drugs. It worked damn well for The Beatles, didn't it?

  2. But third person is my drug of choice.

    ...Is it bad that occasionally I walk through life thinking from the POV of Owl?

    Owl is at the grocery store. She needs to purchase rosemary and thyme....

  3. Owl is my first choice, too. Keep on. Please.