This time of year when leaves start to fall I recall a line I wrote which to this day bothers me.
“Life is the distance between a falling leaf and the ground.”
I loved that line. I was walking around home some years ago and it popped in my head. At the time I had been working on a piece called “Walled In” and the end of the essay digresses into a litany of “life is” comments. I added this as the last line of the piece, which tied back to the narrative about stepping away from society a la Thoreau. The Southern Humanities Review picked up the piece and when I received the final edits before press I wrote Dan Latimer, the editor at the time, and asked him to strike the last line. He did.
I am pretty sure it isn’t original. I googled it; I turned it in to turnitin.com, I tried everything. I don’t read that much so I looked through the few possible books I might find it, but nothing. I looked through poetry books, I called writers I know who actually do read books and asked them. I even, thinking it might have been in a passage read by a writer as a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” wrote the show asking if anyone there, namely host Terry Gross, remembered the line. They were nice enough to write back politely suggesting I might be having a mental breakdown. “But it is a great line!” I wanted to write back. I didn’t.
I remember an interview where Paul McCartney to this day is not convinced he is the author of the music for “Yesterday.” Unlike McCartney, I chose to strike the line. The piece went on to other outlets and has done very well through the years, san line. I was concerned someone would recognize it and know it wasn’t original, even though I’m pretty sure it is. My journalism training, however, requires me to be one hundred percent sure. “If you can’t back up your sources,” Dr. Jandoli repeated, “you don’t have a story.”
That might be in part why I slid away from journalism and into something more personal. I hate fact-checking. Instead, I found stories in life. Though to be honest I don’t know any writer who walks around looking for stories. We don’t stand in the middle of family circumstances or think about work issues or attend baseball games taking mental notes about some possible narrative arc.
But those situations are always possible material. We never stop working. Either some digressive thought about an ongoing work, or a new work, or a very old work, crawls into our consciousness while we are watching television, or some quick phrase catches our attention and we know it is the beginning of or end of or transition to something. It is not on purpose; there is no attempt to blend writing and “life.” I swear. It just happens. We are always working.
An artist’s brain functions differently. A photographer goes for a walk and finds himself framing nature, a painter sees color schemes, a musician notices sounds, and writers, well, complete mental breakdowns from information overload is not out of the question. It is why we despise the comment: “You know what you should write about?” Go away. Did you really think we were sitting around thinking “I have no idea what to write about, I hope someone makes a suggestion”?
And we don’t actually “find” something to write about; it seeps into our existence like humidity or allergies. For me, I walk in the woods, or along the water, and the nature of nature is non-judgmental, absent of debate. I can walk for hours and my thoughts move through unattached to some human-inspired “suggestion” from a billboard or odd structure. It is organic, like leaves falling: thoughts let go and gather around.
Near my home at the river is a small strip of beach which changes with the weather and storms. Sometimes there is room enough to walk quite a ways along the water, and other times the river moves right to the edge of the swamp or rip rap and to continue means wading through the tide. In either case, I am always discouraged at my inability to communicate the perpetual reality of that tide, the infinite days the water will ebb and flow, and the significance of nature compared to the miniscule roll I play in this short span of decades. So I don’t even try. I “stand back and let it all be” as the Boss suggests. And the passing of time is enough some times.
That’s writing. A writer spends a great deal of time not writing. Not because we have nothing to write about, but because we have an absolute conviction we can never, ever do it justice.