A Mind-Splitting Life

Mouth of the Rappahannock River - The Geology of Virginia

I have a few projects at various stages riding waves right now. The Siberian book is out of my hands, and my publisher tells me reviews will start soon, book jacket quotes are coming in, and the book will launch (drop? premiere? release?) in April. Good. I’m excited about this one; it is not a collection of essays, it is a narrative, a memoir, about a father and son sharing a wild ride through time.

The Nature Readings Project has passed muster from the legal perspective and the “staff” (Chris, Jared, Me) have finally, ten months later, started the final stages for release of the videos without anymore concern about rights and wrongs.

Old Dominion classes are fine; Muskingum class is excellent. I’m about to start the well-needed cleansing of the porch and outside walls of the house—not a small project, and certainly a wet one.

I’m knee deep into two separate new books, and I’m readdressing the structure of an old book, perhaps the first manuscript, certainly chronologically in my life experiences, still trying to get it right, still trying to figure out what I want to say to begin with. There is that, after all.

So, yeah, projects are normal. Never in my life have I worked a nine to five job, or any hours, and been done with work so that I can kick back and watch movies and forget about it until the next work week. I do kick back, a lot, and I do watch movies, a lot, but even then—especially then—I’m still on the clock. My clock. The one that is rewriting some article, thinking about a hard to pinpoint digression, glancing at edits or adding a section, restructuring, eliminating, sending out, throwing out, or just plain passing out. The dust never settles in the creative world; there is no downtime for our brains.

Even when I’m walking to the river or sitting in the morning drinking coffee and watching the dolphin pass in the bay, I’ve already clocked in, said good morning to the muses, and started working. Concentration might not be present, but awareness of the need to get things done, the internal drive to move things along, never left, not even when I was sleeping. I know this because sometimes I get up at night and wander to my desk and the papers have been shuffled, passages crossed off with “what the hell were you thinking here?” written across a paragraph, in my own handwriting.

A glass of wine helps, but I most often try to avoid that diversion. So I put on a movie or a show, something I’ve seen, something I’m familiar enough with to not need to watch but instead can listen to in the back of my mind like noise at a restaurant I can hear but don’t pay attention to, until a favorite scene comes on and I turn my attention to that for a few minutes, smile, enjoy the moment, then return from that quick but essential deep breath of a break to my work.

This is how my waking hours go. All the time. Every day, since I’m, well, for a very long time.

This doesn’t mean I can’t lay it all down like a bag of bricks and walk away. I can, and do, probably too often. But when I do, it is usually only for excellent reasons. Teaching, of course, (but even there I could claim they do so much work since I teach writing courses that I spend some of that time thinking about my own material), with friends, out for a hike with my son, sitting on a beach with a friend talking about life, talking about music or people we’ve known and lost. Yes, the best of my moments have been then, between writings, when a break from all the projects reminds me of the simple gifts of my world.

Not long ago I drove through western New York and went to lunch with two people: my cousin Annmarie, and one of my oldest and closest confidants, Liz. We sat in Geneseo, New York, at some tavern and talked about time, about DNA and how it matters more than we thought, and about friendship—true friendship—which bypasses DNA for some people and ties them together with something stronger than ancestry.

Then I drove up to spend a few days with a brother from a different mother, and we sat on a dock and talked about our kids, our parents, our expanding history and our contracting future, and it was right to do so, to spend our time that way.

I returned home and spent an afternoon with my brother (same mother) talking about everything from pizza to remodeling to the matters at hand, someone whose voice is to me as old as my own DNA. And today my son and I hiked trails we’d never been on before, and just like when we search the stars or when we catch the sunrises and sunsets, we remained without baggage or projects or issues of any sort, completely present, in the moment.

And all of these people brought me such peace.

It is such a contradiction to the contradiction that is creativity. I must be both completely present in the diction, the word choice, the sound of fingers on the keyboard and the frustrating and distracting anticipatory device that keeps telling me to hit “tab” to complete a word automatically instead of just letting me finish typing it. All of this part of the process is terribly present and real. But my mind and the prose force me to focus on future events or past happenings, sometimes decades and decades past, sometimes four hours ago, and so the process leaves me feeling as if I’m out on some body of water somewhere with two surfboards, and I’ve got one foot on each, one completely aware of the visceral contact, the other looking at the shore or looking back at the waves from which we came. It is quite the balancing act, and too much awareness of the keyboard, the diction, and I’m done; too much awareness of the events of 1980 or 2021 and the writing is done. It’s about balance.

Ah, there it is.

It is all about balance, about leaving the desk for the damp evening, the cool wet feel of my skin as fall weather comes on quickly, shaking off the words and ideas for a bit, knowing I can return later. Too much of one can destroy the other. Balance. It isn’t easy for some of us to find. We are not a smart lot, us engaged in the creative endeavors.

But back to the projects at various stages riding those waves right now, as I was going to say before Truth broke in with all of her matter-of-factness about balance (thank you Robert), I’ve got several going at once and I’m not sure if any of them will come to fruition, let alone be worthy of sharing. And as for any of them making large enough waves to make the returns worth the effort, well few writers I know play that pipe dream.

No, I’m going to clean the porch and write a book this weekend. I can’t possibly get one done without the other. And when they get the wires crossed and I’m not sure what to do? I’ll head to the river. A walk to let it all align itself and tell me my next step. Down at the river where the wide Rappahannock and the massive Chesapeake Bay battle for the same space, sometimes leaving the waters salty, sometimes clear as rainwater. But around here where watermen watch the weather when they’re on shore, one can’t possibly exist without the other.

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