Essay by Patricia Dubrava
Focus, Damn It!
It’s easy to stop writing. No one notices. Nothing depends on it. I have no deadlines, and completing this or any other writing produces no paycheck. Which reminds me: It’s the first of the month. I go online to see if my retirement check was deposited yesterday. It was. Cool. Money for nothing.
Money for nothing and your chicks for free. Mark Knopfler. Was that the last time I was interested in popular music? I Google the correct spelling of Knopfler, look at a few photos. Wow, is he ever getting old.
Focus, damn it…although if no one notices, why continue writing? Since I was a young poet, I’ve drifted along on a series of lofty sentiments: cannot live without writing, only way to give my life meaning, yadda, yadda. One writes poetry because one must. It is possible to have a feeling about the world—what’s that quote? And who said it?
Google detour. Ten minutes later, there it is:
It is quite possible to have a feeling about the world which creates a need that nothing satisfies except poetry.” —Wallace Stevens
Said by the man who passed the New York bar, went to work as a bonding lawyer for an insurance company, ended up as an insurance executive, had a life that was routine and uneventful, milked some of the best poetry written in America from that life, wrote much of his best work after age 60. Good role model.
Not quite the same as my life, though. Stevens had a wife who handled the domestic end of things and secretaries who typed and copied for him. I was, alas, a woman. I cooked, raised the kids and became a teacher, a job that pays a lot less than lawyering and requires you to do your own typing and copying. Still, I remind myself, for a writer, all of life is raw material.
Hmm. There’s an odd little lump on the side of my face I haven’t noticed before. I go to the mirror and peer at it but can’t see much. The last time one of these showed up, the doctor told me it was a barnacle. “Comes from being in the water too long,” he quipped. Ha ha. He’s thirty, hasn’t yet begun to grow his own barnacles.
Like anything else, writing requires routine. I was on a roll before I took a two-week job teaching. While I needed the money and it was good to be with kids again, it took four days to recover, catch up with housework, errands, and emails. And now I just want to play computer solitaire.
On my way back to my study, I notice the carpet needs vacuuming. When did I do it last? Must have been before the teaching job. I’d like to get rid of this carpet, really, put in hardwood and area rugs. I wonder what that would cost, start to research it, then force myself to stop.
I’ve just remembered my resolution to walk every day I don’t go to the gym. I said this was a doable resolution, but so far I’m not doing it.
The sky is blue, the day sunny and mild. It’s going to snow tomorrow, so I must walk today. Crossing City Park, I circle Ferril Lake. Halfway around, I shed my jacket, tie it around my waist. It is that warm. Being in motion invigorates me: I’m finally accomplishing something.
The three barefoot babies of the Children’s Fountain smile down, enchanted, on the three frogs, who look up, equally enchanted, as they’ve done for the past hundred years. Long before I moved to the neighborhood, vandals chiseled off their marble feet. When replaced, the feet were soon cut away again. But the tykes have kept their current feet for years now. I am moved by their curled little toes. I choose to read this refraining from amputation as a sign that shreds of decency still survive in the human race.
The lake is full of “we-see-no-need-to-migrate-anymore” Canada geese, mostly settled on the ice. Partly, they’re here because of global warming. Partly, because we feed them. On the ice-free side of the lake, the water glazes smooth and for a moment is the exact powdery blue of the mountains on the western horizon.
Back at my desk, I rethink the idea of an essay about writing or not writing. I’m bored with this topic. So self-referential, so po-mo. I should be researching that essay on Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Denver’s poet, whose lake I just walked around. Or the one where I present my groundbreaking ideas on national health care.
From my study windows, afternoon sun flares sorrel and golden along the bare branches of winter. The naked trees expose the neighborhood with all its warts and beauty spots: barren backyards with scattered white plastic chairs and trash; the steep, peaked roofs of Victorian houses, bathed in creamy light. By four, the sun sinks, clouds gather, and those roofs and walls become drab.
Structure & routine, I was saying. At the computer right after breakfast each morning, 10:30 break, then 12:30 for lunch, then at work again, but usually a different project. Let the morning’s words cool. That’s the theory. Wait: There’s a new lump under my ribs.
My butt hurts. I get up, pace the room. Finger the bump on my face, palpate the lump beneath the rib. They’re different. Okay, the first is a carbuncle and the second is a carcinoma.
The phone rings. I peer suspiciously at the ID. What are they selling this time? Oh good! It’s my friend. I haven’t talked to her in weeks, but we have a lunch date tomorrow. Unfortunately, she’s in a hurry, needs to cancel our lunch, can’t talk.
I hang up. Where was I? Regular writing hours. Oh, and something to write about. But that’s why I’m a translator, too. If I’m casting about fruitlessly, I can always translate the words of someone lucky enough to have found a topic while I’m waiting for one of my own.
Three translation projects sit on my desktop. I click them open and closed in rapid succession. They require so much work. I wonder why my friend wouldn’t talk to me a bit longer. And now we’re not meeting for lunch. Maybe she doesn’t really like me anymore.
I do a random search for a topic and get waylaid by a YouTube video of a Bill Maher show on the Republican obsession with Saul Alinsky. It’s hysterical. I thought people stopped knowing who Saul Alinsky was in 1972. I send it to everyone.
Now it’s 4:50 and time to make supper. Time to stop writing. At the last minute, I jot down a couple of ideas. Because tomorrow…tomorrow will be different.
Notes on "Me, Writing"
- “Money for nothing and your chicks for free” is from the Mark Knopfler hit song “Money For Nothing,” included in the Dire Straits 1985 album Brother in Arms. I like the way Knopfler wrote this song. He was in an appliance store and heard a salesman talking, grabbed a piece of paper, and started writing the song in the salesman’s voice. This is how people like to think of artists, that they get their money for nothing.
- In the last years of his life, from 1948 to 1955, Wallace Stevens had a rich (over 60 letters) correspondence with the Irish poet and critic Thomas MacGreevy. Letters of Wallace Stevens (A. A. Knopf, 1966) contains the letter to MacGreevy that has this famous Stevens quote: “One writes poetry because one must. It is quite possible to have a feeling about the world which creates a need that nothing satisfies except poetry.”
- Real Time with Bill Maher is a political satire show on HBO. His diatribe about the Republican obsession with Saul Alinsky appeared on the January 27, 2012, show. Like everything else in the world that’s ever been videotaped, you can find it on YouTube. It’s not so funny if you’re a Republican. I only sent it to my liberal friends.
- Patricia Marx, a New Yorker staff writer, wrote a very funny piece, published in the January 30, 2012, issue, called “Me, Reading.” Lack of focus, ease of distraction. Ah, yes. Enduring concerns. I was inspired by it, but you can’t say I stole her topic. Every writer under the sun owns this topic.
Patricia Dubrava has published a collection of stories translated from the Spanish and two collections of poems, Choosing the Moon and Holding the Light. Recent publications include book reviews for The Bloomsbury Review, translated stories in Reunion: The Dallas Review and Metamorphoses and forthcoming in Aldus and Ephemera, an essay in the Palo Alto Review, and a poem in the NewBorder Journal. Read more at her blog Holding the Light.