Vladimir: It’s the start that’s difficult.
Estragon: You can start from anything.
Vladimir: Yes, but you have to decide.
~Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
The great white screen stares blankly back at me.
As a writer, this is an unfortunate thing to dwell on when I sit down to write. I wish ideas, observations – things – would pop into my head. Instead, I note the infinite leering back in my face. Perhaps I chose the wrong profession.
Sometimes writing comes easily to me. This is only ever in a practical sense, of course. Rarely, if ever, do I reflect on my past work and consider it quality, consider it to have any real substance. There are times when I can at least put something down, though.
I recall being frustrated in my high school days with limitations imposed by the writing assignments my teachers would give us. So many stupid book reports. How mundane! I was tired of repeatedly constructing some formulaic review of some vestigial novel I’d Sparknoted and didn’t give a shit about. When were they going to let us be creative? When would I finally be allowed to decide on my own what to write about? Now, as I look at this ivory abyss of Word, I envy those days of direction.
My focus, as it is prone to do, begins to derail. This time, my train of thought leads to the film Finding Forrester, in which the legendary, fictional author William Forrester mentors an inner-city youth named Jamal to help develop the latter’s literary genius. When Jamal faces writers block, Forrester advises, “No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!” Sound advice, it would seem. That it is sound, is terrifying. What if I get to the end, only to realize it’s not the story I wanted to write?
A zygote of an idea finally dawns on me, and I punch away on the keys of my laptop. Despite this whisper of a beginning, the words struggle to come out. The first few sentences, even, are like trying to spit with cotton mouth.
My mind, again, proves its wanderlust.
I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately, and have been reading various blogs about the various shows. I was reading an episode recap of one particular drama, in which the blogger, whose opinion I’ve come to respect, made a criticism of the show that’s been nagging at me. The critic enjoyed the episode, but commented, “While the show’s themes and arguments are thrilling and fascinating, it fails to teach us anything. It fails to tell us something about ourselves that we don’t already know.”
I’m still shaken by these words, and the burden inherent within. If a text’s value is contingent on this requirement, then all our efforts are futile; it’s just too tall of an order. It certainly seems out of my reach, anyway. I mean, seriously, how the hell am I supposed to teach other people about themselves? I can’t even figure myself out, and have been toiling away on that problem for years. A war fought on two fronts is a difficult one. Alas. I wish there were only two.
After grinding out another few scattered thoughts, I get stuck again, so I click save and review what I’ve written. Judging this incomplete, amorphous text seems impossible, at least at this point. At least I was able to write something today. Whether I made any progress, however, is still up in the air.
“Johnnyyyy, I’m readyyyy for you to be dooone,” my wife sing-songs from outside. “Come out here. I’m bored!” Cynically, I think of Slim Shady’s line, “Leave me alone, bitch! I get on my own nerves.” In my wisest move of the day, I do not voice these thoughts.
Why my tangential mind brings me here, I am not sure. Why do I often think these obscene, derisive thoughts that express emotions I do not feel? There must be some reason. There must always be a reason. What that is, though? Another’s guess is as good as mine.
Quite frankly, Amy’s comment was conveniently timed. Very much so, in fact. Now I have an excuse for my lack of progress.
Getting up out of bed, I walk to the window of our cabin. As I peer through the smudged glass, I can just make out Amy lying on the deck outside. She’s tanning in the bikini she’d bought the day before. Yesterday, we’d argued about the wisdom of that purchase, but it’s hard for me now to question it. Seeing her now makes me wonder what I’d been thinking. How happy she looks, how pleased she is with her new outfit, and herself because of it. Maybe my expectations are too high. Utility will never be a permanent thing.
I step away from the window, make my way across the cabin, and climb the short flight of stairs before stepping outside. The ocean wind feels refreshing against my face.
“Holy shit! It’s outrageously bright out here,” I say. I’m full of insights like this.
“Here, take your sunglasses. They’re in my way. Now, come sit next to me,” Amy says.
I can stop squinting now, but as I look up at the clear sky above us, my eyes catch the sun. Its brilliance makes me break my gaze. The illumination – the purity – is just too overwhelming. Instead, as I close my eyes, seeing spots, I feel the sun beating down its oppressive, wasteland heat. I know I’m already minutes away from breaking out in a sweat. I cannot see the sun, but I can certainly still feel it.
I sit down next to Amy and look around The Peabody. She, our boat, had clearly seen better days. Not necessarily better, I suppose. Perhaps it’s just that now she’s seen more days.
The boat had been my father’s before he passed and passed it along to me. I remember him loving her when I was a kid, this Carolina Blue vessel. How many trips had we taken to the Lake, just so my father could slake his craving for nature, freedom, and the exquisiteness of the expletives required for when the sails or the rudder would invariably act up?
Now she’s mine, and I guess it’s not so bad. I’d thought it was for a while. Sailing had never been my favorite, and thus owning a sailboat was more than a bit inconvenient. I’d tried selling it, but there were no buyers. For whatever reason, even donating had proven impossible. It took me years, but I finally came to terms with it. Some things from your past, you just can’t get away from.
“Wait, I’m sorry, I just got so tired,” Amy tells me. “I hope it’s okay since I called you out here, but I think I’m going to try to take a nap.”
“No, no, of course not,” I reply. “Get some sleep, I wanted to catch up on reading, anyway.”
As Amy dozes off, I pick up my copy of 395 Great American Poems and leaf through the pages. The masters are here; Whitman, Eliot, and more, are what I aspire to. These idols are tangible as shadows, there and not there all at the same time.
I stop my skimming when I stumble across the great Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken. Immediately I think of my father, and his funeral, and the speech that Owen gave at his funeral. In my father’s formative years, he’d been groomed to become a lawyer, following in the footsteps of my grandparents. During his collegiate semester abroad, though, his aspirations changed; he rejected that normal, peer-laden path and decided instead to dedicate his life to working with kids in third world countries. Owen, up at the podium, had read this poem to honor my father. The metaphor, of course, was that, when two roads diverged, he’d taken the one less traveled, and that it had made all the difference.
Putting the book down, I reach over and pull a cigarette out of my box of Marlboros. I’ve been eager, impatient for this moment for hours now. I press it to my lips as I strike my Zippo, inhaling deeply as the flame licks the open tip. The first drag is ecstasy, but doesn’t bring me quite what I’m looking for. Neither does the next drag, nor the one after. Despite this, I remain determined. I’ll find it one of these days, hidden there among the tips and middles and ends.
I could have sworn I’d found it before, but what do I know? That was before the ban on unfiltered cigarettes, too. Filtered one just aren’t the same. A little safer, perhaps. Easier going down. Not as raw, though. Never as pure. What a shame.
With the ember fading quickly, I stamp the roach into the heaps of the ash tray and toss the remainder over the side of the boat. I watch it float for a while before I lose sight of it in the waves.
I think back to the crossroads from Frost’s poem. My high school yearbook was titled Crossroads. The options presented in front of you, and the path you’ll be lead on when you make your choice. If only things were that simple. That there was only one choice. That the consequences were linear, uncorrectable.
It’s sublime, crippling power.
As I, brooding, stare out at the great blue, Amy wakes up, shakes off the cobwebs, and looks over at me. “What are you thinking about over there, Mr. Serious?” she asks.
“Ohh, nothing,” I respond.
“No, really, what’s going on?” she persists.
“….. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘Any Port in a Storm,’” I ask.
“…Sure?” she replies, nervously looking up at the sky. “Why? I’m confused. Is it going to rain?”
“I don’t know, probably at some point. But that’s not what I mean. I was just thinking, shouldn’t we be trying to avoid a storm altogether? It’s one thing if you’re already in one, but we don’t want to get into one in the first place. How do we prevent that? And are all storms bad enough that you’d really choose any port? There are some shitty destinations out there.”
“Hmm… I don’t know,” Amy says. “I wouldn’t worry about it, though, it’s just an expression. Also, that’s pretty random… what made you think of this anyway?”
“No reason,” I tell her.
“Okay then,” she laughs. “So where are we headed? Did you decide where you want to go?”
“Not yet,” I say.
After all, I’m just being honest. I don’t know where to go.
All I know is we can’t go back.