Vol. 56, Surviving by Percentages
It’s been a year since my last KIS.list posting.
Now, this doesn’t mean it’s been a year since I’ve thought about the KIS.list. I actually have a whole draft of a report on post-Katrina Mardi Gras, which I wrote last year after Mardi Gras 2006. I also have two incomplete posts—one on novel writing and another on poetry. But none of these attempts ever made it off my hard drive and into cyber circulation.
Every once in a while a friend confides that she is sure she’s been kicked off the KIS.list. “It’s been a long time since I received one, maybe you don’t want me on your list anymore,” friends will speculate. I assure them, that no one’s been kicked off the KIS.list. “It’s not you,” I tell them, “it’s me.”
And it is me. It’s me who hasn’t been able to convince herself to complete a KIS.list in the past year. And it’s also me who refuses to write a “Dear John” letter and call the whole thing off. If this were a romantic relationship, I would be the weakest link. The hot-and-cold lover who won’t call it quits, but won’t show up for dates either. A therapist would have a field day with this conversation.
As the divine order of the universe would have it, this impasse with the KIS.list is actually the perfect illustration of my current relationship with writing. When I try to describe this bizarre juncture in my career, I slip into double talk; I make a statement, then double back to contradict it. The point is: I’m a writer. I’m a writer like I’m a woman. I could stop wearing skirts, but that doesn’t change my anatomy. I have stopped writing reports, but that doesn’t change my identity. When I don’t write, I feel it. The KIS.list ideas back up in my mind, and I mope, mourning the loss of working in a special milieu—of being a writer writing about writing.
Yet, despite my love for writing, something strange has happened. Gone are the days when an idea was it’s own burning bullet compelling me to create. It seems as my talents as a writer grow, my emotional need to write shrinks. It’s like that nose dive in sex that some of my married friends complain about. Just when you can get it all the time, other things intrude on your interest in it. There are just too many things to be done. Introduce children, mortgage payments, and building nest eggs to the conversation and sex just shrinks and cowers in the corner. “Oh just get to me when you can,” she whispers, all forlorn and neglected. And of course, for some married couples, the prospect of having sex is just a gateway to the possibility of having more children and making more responsibilities.
So maybe I mistakenly married writing while I was being so prolific a few years back and now I just don't feel like “doing it” any more. I can't explain why I’ve lost my drive to write. I could moan and bellyache about my 9-to-5 sucking me dry, but I've done that before. Besides, I’m grateful for my job. I am grateful for the ability to come back from Mexico with $600 and no job, and start working within a month and pay myself back into the black with no major carnage. I could complain about parenting sucking me dry, but it’s such a lovely job. Parenting is as beautiful as it is difficult. I chose the job. Its challenges might make me beg, cry, and hustle for a break, but I will never blame reduced artistic output on my daughter (even if my curriculum vitae documents the abysmal drop off in all literary activities since the year of my daughter’s birth).
So the question is, what to do? It is a question every artist must ask. When all the elements of my life are clamoring for my attention—the children and the bills and the sustenance desperately, fervently, tragically need my attention—how do I continue to create art?
I can’t lie. Before I had my daughter, the impassioned drive to write had already started crumbling. Before she was even an itch in her daddy’s pants, as the saying goes, I needed external triggers to lure myself into starting a new story. Back then, my trigger was an invitation; I swore to write a new story or essay anytime someone asked me to. At the beginning of the vow, the invitations flew fast and furious. But the less I wrote, the less I was invited to write. Over the past year, the invitations slowed to a mere trickle. Now I stand in a desert of production—no external triggers and no internal desires. I could die out here.
I will admit I ignored an invitation to write an essay last year, but when my friend Benjamin Rosenbaum invited me to contribute short shorts to a hyperlink web piece, I said yes. I swore that when the piece, “23 Small Disasters,” was posted on the web, I would write (and complete, and send out) a new KIS.list. (“23Small Disasters” is currently up on the Ideomancer site.)
The divine joke is that now that it is less of a struggle to write a fine piece of fiction, it is more of a challenge to simply sit down and write. While trying to figure out how to return my writer self to the world of the living, I came across an essay by Charles Derry entitled “A Year Like Any Other” in the September 2005 issue of The Sun magazine.
In the essay, Derry does an incredible job detailing and sharing his journey through cancer As Derry moves into a section about learning to see his cancer as a gift, he talks about his cousin Adriana, “the only cancer survivor in [his] family of victims. Diagnosed with a late-stage, inoperable lung tumor, Adriana had been given only a 2 percent chance of living five years. That was more than fifteen years ago. What was her secret?”
Adriana describes her secret as this: “If you want to live, you need to do everything you can to remain positive. I took ... what do you call it? Oh, right, astragalus and shark cartilage. I think that added 3 or 4 percent to my chances. I took it for five years; I went broke taking it, but that was OK.... And I ate. I ate no matter what. I figure maybe that gave me another 5 or 6 percent more. I ate because my son came back to force me to eat. Sometimes he put the spoon in my mouth. Even when my radiation and chemotherapy made me crawl on my stomach to the toilet and I was vomiting blood, I forced myself to keep eating, because I wanted to live. And sometimes, Chuckie, gee, I collapsed on that tile floor, I was so weak. But I continued to go to work. I figure that helped. And I spent time outside. And so, yeah, I tried to find my hope where I could. And prayer, too. And oh, Chuckie, I thought about your mother sometimes while I was sick, and especially about my dad, who just wasted away—and I think Aunt Frannie just wasted away like that, too and I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to die like that. I’m not going to.’ So that’s what I’d say to you: I’d say you got to make your own decision on what you got to do, and increase your percentages where you can, and hope for the best.”
So when a fellow speculative fiction writer invited me to start a writing group, and the little girl inside me made her ‘gag me with a spoon’ face, I called her anyway. I didn’t want to talk about writing. I told the woman, I didn’t want to work on writing techniques. In the face of my stubborn refusal, she made a brilliant suggestion. We could talk about our writing goals, she said. Then I heard the trill of trumpets announcing the arrival of the cavalry. A blinding light went off in my head (forgive me if I exaggerate a little—my similies and metaphors have been penned up for quite a while). We made a date, invited a Ph.D. candidate who is working on her dissertation and got to work.
We set goals and hold each other accountable for keeping them. We work in percentages. We make small commitments and move forward by degrees. Since the group started I’ve submitted two stories for publication, applied for once fellowship and re-envisioned the second draft of my novel (and I'm here writing all of you today).
Gone are the days when writing defined me. Now I have to define writing. I have to pick up a really large and sharp knife and cut out a space for writing. Then I have to show up and play the numbers game. This year is all about throwing in the percentages, doing my small, scattered part to bring my writer self back from the edge of existence and putting her front and center, where she belongs.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam