The Wood Chopper
Often are the moments when I sit down to write… when I have the desire to write... but there is nothing there. I have composed and deleted already a few groups of words - some even made it as far as complete sentences - and still I find myself at a loss. I only know that I want to say something, but I don’t know what it is. Michelangelo would say that he didn’t create his sculptures, they were already in the marble - he simply exposed them. And so it is with writing sometimes. I will write in my head wildly disconnected thoughts and excise those that do not fit, revealing the beauty of what is left. The words don’t always have to appear written before my eyes, but they have been written behind my eyes nonetheless.
It has been several hours since I walked away from this work. Now nearly 4 a.m., it is beckoning me back, drawing me away from the comfort of my bed, away from my sleep and back to a path that leads at once nowhere and everywhere. I usually have an idea about where I’m going… at least a general heading, but today, in the still hours of the predawn morning, I am lost. As if stranded in the jungle, I keep walking… listening for the sound of water, of civilization, of something - anything - familiar to move towards. The instinct to survive drives me to keep walking, to keep writing until I find it, whatever it is.
Annie Dillard writes of the solitude and the isolation of the writer. She tells in The Writing Life of the small rooms and the self-deprivation of comfort, of companionship, of society as she sinks into the world of words. The perfection of the carefully molded elements of the sentences and the interplay of the thoughts and ideas all come out in the solitude of the writer’s world. Writing is not a performing art, but rather a recorded one. The beauty is in the finished product, not in its creation. Indeed, the creative process is often ugly, agonizing and for long periods dormant. The work, however, may not reflect the agony. The work must flow like a river. The work will either be remembered - or forgotten. But the process, however, can never be known.
I used to have a padded desk chair. Covered in soft fabric, it had a multitude of adjustments. It could move up and down, tilt backward and forward and it was equipped with an adjustment to support the lumbar region of my back. It fit me like a glove and when I needed to take a break from my world, I needn’t leave my desk; I would simply adjust the chair upward and backward, placing my feet upon my desk and my head back into my clasped hands, elbows in the air. I gave that chair to my son. I now have a hard wooden folding chair that reminds me of its presence every moment I sit in it. I am never too comfortable and although my writing space is not so desolate as the many Dillard describes, at 4 a.m. it is none too scenic with only my darkened reflection staring back at me from the window.
The writing life is my life. I chose it as much as it chose me. In fact, it patiently awaited my acquiescence. The words finally won and came forth. It broke me. And it was not without struggle and much discomfort. Pain motivates me and it is perhaps possible that although past experience formed the words, self-imposed discomfort gets them written. There are tricks to every trade, I suppose, and excellence never coexists with complacence. The struggle to create is born of need and that need might be as simple as the need to seek relief.
Dillard tells the story of how she learned to chop wood. It sounds easy enough; stand the log on end, swing the axe and split the wood. But she found that no matter how simple it seemed and how much she tried, the axe only kept whittling the top of the log to a blunt point. It wasn’t until she was told the secret that the axe found its way through the wood. “Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood you will have nothing. Aim past wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.”
The metaphor works for me. More than that, it resonates within me. I rarely ever have a clear idea of what the words will be. Like Michelangelo’s sculptures, the words are already there, waiting to be revealed. I don’t operate from some outline and sometimes I don’t even know what I am supposed to be writing, only that I must write. Even if it’s at 4 a.m. in the predawn morning. When the rest of the world is asleep. In my hard wooden folding chair. With my stark reflection staring back at me. I write.