To Be Of Use


30 October 2014

My dear T.–

A few months ago, you asked me: “How do you go about your writing, or your PhD? I sometimes imagine you standing in front of a labyrinthian master plan, your very own Ariadne.”

God. That question was so intimidating. How do I go about my writing? These days, I don’t so much go about writing. At least not as much as I go around it. Or as much as I go on ignoring it. How do I go about my writing? I have no idea. I don’t: is the short answer. If there is a labyrinth involved, it is not my master plan. If anyone’s a labyrinth, I’m standing lost within one.

I didn’t ever want to get to this place: this place where I rarely write. Years ago, I would have been appalled at the idea that days could pass — weeks, months — without writing. Not writing to you, not writing here, not writing poems, not writing research. Not journalling. Not taking personal notes. Not carrying around notebooks. Not waking up in the middle of the night to write things down.

I have been notating some of my dreams. I was writing bits and pieces in the morning, first thoughts upon waking. But I couldn’t really stretch them out. I couldn’t encourage them to carry themselves over into making sentences, into building paragraphs, pages. They were just disjointed ideas with no limbs. I have notes on my phone of dreams on dreams, but I can’t even bring myself to copy them into my notebook.

I asked Andrew about my notebooks today. The question didn’t start off with notebooks. It started off with a problem (which is Andrew’s favorite part of problem-solving. Let’s look at the problem from all angles. If you can’t find a solution, you haven’t properly defined the problem). I said, “I’ve been going through all my things before we move.”

“I know,” he said, “You’ve done a great job.”

“I’m not finished,” I said.

“I know, but you’ve done well so far.”

“No,” I said, “I mean: I’m not finished. But I’ve stopped. I’ve come to an impasse.”

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I want to have half of what is left now.” I said. “I only want to have half of these things. But I’ve already done the culling, and now I can’t find the means to keep getting rid of things.”

I told him the story of the school photographer who would help you narrow down the eight shots to the final photograph. He would hold up two photos: 1 and 2. Choose one, he would say. Which is your favorite? Your favorite would become number 1, and the reject would be replaced by another number 2. The process would go on. A 50-50 narrowing of options.

But I could never choose that way. I said to Andrew, I can’t just hold two books side by side and make myself choose one. It’s not even the books that are the problem area. Where I get really stuck is in the drawers: my notebooks, my papers, my stationary.

He said, “Working at Paperchase is the best thing for you. It’s a great exercise about restraint, and patience.”

It’s true. My 50% staff discount doesn’t kick in until after Christmas. And so, buoyed with the knowledge that I can have all of these papers and notebooks and pens for 50% less if I wait, I am happy to wait. I get to know all of the products on a daily basis. I help other people find what they are looking for. I help other people choose between papers, between folders and scrapbooks and wrapping paper and tissue. Decorations. Gifts. Cards. And in the meantime, I keep my eye on a few things that I like.

With three months on my hands, I have so much time to consult with these items before I buy them. I have time to know them on a deeper level. It’s not just about instinct or impulse anymore. I’m not going to run off and buy them off the shelf. I am not this store’s perfect clientele. I am a considered, considering, reflective buyer. And the longer I sit and hold these things in my awareness, the more I can tell that they are just things. A notebook I thought would make me so happy doesn’t hold the same resonance the next time I come in to work.

A few things do keep me. Obviously. There is a line of £3 notebooks that I do love. I can tell, because I have been courting them with a slow, respectful, quiet attention, and that attention has been sustained for weeks. I love them. I do. And all of the notebooks in my house have been brought here because of that reason. At some point, I fell for them. I knew when I picked them up that they might be something magical. I was captivated by the potential in their blank pages.

I even told Andrew: “T. and I talk about this all the time. We’re writers. We keep notebooks for all sorts of reasons. List notebooks, idea notebooks, draft notebooks, journals, letter books, endless categories.”

He said, “Are you using all of them?”

The answer is: no. I have a backlog of notebooks. I don’t know what they are yet, or why I wanted them, or what drew me to them in the first place. I don’t know why I need them. I don’t know why they’re still here. But I’m not ready to let them go yet. The same is true of old papers, of essays, letters, stationary, notecards, flyers. But paper weighs heavy. And it’s weighing heavy on me as a writer to be swimming in a sea of all of these pages. They don’t feel inspiring anymore. They feel overwhelming.

Andrew said, “And seeing them there, on a shelf, empty, sitting, waiting… does that ever hurt you to know they’re not being used as they should be used? To know that their utility is at a standstill?”

It does hurt.

It does hurt because I know that I’m not even using the tools I am using. There are notebooks I am writing in. Sometimes. But I’m not writing in them right now.

There is a whole backlog of letters here that we have written to each other. But I haven’t even been writing the letters I’m writing. My hands have been writing them. But my heart hasn’t. My computer uploads this text, but my voice hasn’t been in it.

I don’t know what’s different. Maybe the willingness to look at it now, to see this deflection and watch the urge to turn away. Maybe I know I don’t want to be left with handfuls of empty letters, shelves of empty notebooks and stacks and stacks of useless paper. Maybe I know I want to be of more use to my life.

More soon.



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