IT’S LATE AT NIGHT. 3 or 4 AM. Jenn is supposed to be asleep because she has a big presentation to give at work tomorrow, but I can see the crack of light under our bedroom door.
I am supposed to be awake, because I’m a writer, and writers must be awake in the small watchful hours of the night, scanning the sky for stories. Like batman. Looking for that cloudy gray outline of ideas against the black.
I use a vintage IBM selectric typewriter because that is another thing writers do — use vintage writing machines — and also because I like how hard you have to push the keys; not the way your hands whisper and dart over a laptop. It makes writing aerobic. I’m working out here. The laptop writers of the world don’t understand how you need to sweat to create.
I am writing a sci-fi story about a planet where women are like Russian matryoshka dolls. Whenever you get tired of one, or angry with one, because she has become pissy all the time or perpetually annoyed at your natural human shortcomings, you just crack open the lid and inside is another, beautiful, perfect woman. But she is slightly smaller. And whenever you get tired or angry or fall out of love you can just open her up and find another inside. But they keep getting smaller and smaller, until you are left with one little nub of a woman no bigger than your thumb, and there is no breaking her down or cracking her open, she is solid.
Jenn saw the first page. Pretty passive aggressive, she said, and threw the sheet back at me, and it floated sadly between us and took a long time to hit the ground.
It’s not, I said. It’s brilliant. And: wait til you see the rest of it.
But I looked back and yes, it was pretty passive aggressive.
So now I am not writing that story anymore.
I am writing a stirring world war II drama that involves a locket left in the crack of a bombed out wall by a grandmother, and her granddaughter, herself now a grandmother, is going back to the old country to search for the locket, because it is known to carry the only surviving photograph of her grandfather —
It feels good, but the more I think about it, with each successive sentence I actually actualize on the page, the less brilliant it gets. This is the problem with all my stories: the moment it arrives on the page, it is a disappointment, and it only goes downhill from there. As I type this stirring world war II drama, which was going to move even my icy-hearted mother to tears, someone steps onto the stage of my mind and begins to play the world’s smallest violin, and I have to stop.
I go walking up and down the hall of our apartment. The crack of light is still under the bedroom door. I wonder what she’s doing in there, why she’s up late like me.
I’m writing a sci-fi story about an astronaut sent on a fifty-year mission who can only think of the girl he left behind, who misses her every day, whose absence is like a hollow in his chest. He thinks about how the last time they slept together she curled up under his arm the way a fern is coiled tightly before it’s fully grown, and he unfurled her, slowly, tendril by tendril, and she opened for him.
Then you find out that he hasn’t left her behind at all, she’s the co-astronaut, and they are together on the fifty-year journey, but something happened to them and they are broken up and it’s like they are millions of miles away from each other.
It’s good, really good. I don’t know yet what drove them apart. I don’t understand that part yet.
It’s four in the morning. I can tell; this is the time that birds start calling even though it’s still dark. The time that I’m bleary-eyed, just enough so that the words on the page begin to jump places, and it feels like there is dense cotton between my ears, swelling into every crevice of my brain. In the past, this was when I’d wake up beside Jenn and wonder who I was holding in my sleep and why, and feel her still body and be afraid, afraid of this sarcophagus of a stranger.
Write me a story, she asked.
I am a brilliant fledgling writer with much promise but I told her, I can’t.
So now she is careful to eat her meals an hour before I eat mine, and I am careful to wash up in the kitchen so she can never be sure I was there.
It doesn’t matter anyway. All that matters is the story; the writing; the coffee and cigarettes; the click and hum of the typewriter; the feel of four AM.
So I’m writing a story about a boy who washes up on a desert island that’s actually a teeming city of people, but they’re hostile and savage, like the jabbering cannibals you see in old movies, but at the same time urban and civilized. He is the outcast, he is the fool. I look out the window at the skyline to remind myself of what I don’t know, how it feels to be somewhere that isn’t home. Walking past streets you don’t know, that don’t feel right. The sounds of cabs and orange garbage trucks and drunk people laughing as they fall out of clubs late at night, all hostile and strange. They’re telling you, go home. You don’t belong here.
I’m writing a sci-fi story about a race of aliens who, when they want children, climb trees and sprout them like fruit, and then when they’re ripe, let them fall.
That’s stupid. I’m not writing about that.
I’m writing a serious crime drama in which the suspected killer was actually just the person who arrived in that awful grimy basement room where she was trapped and tried to save her, but couldn’t. And in the end he’s convicted, even though the tough gritty narrator knows he’s innocent, because that’s how it is: sometimes bad things happen for no reason, and it’s no one’s fault.
In the other room, Jenn is shifting in her sleep. I know the rustle that means she is turning from flat on her back to her side, and her mouth is half open, her lashes long like an exotic animal’s, and her arm is settling into the space where I am not, and I think the arm is looking for me, is feeling along the bed, unbeknownst to its owner.
I’m writing a story about two people who travel to a new city to make a new life, and they meet and fall in love. Lightning bolt in love. Like they look at each other and know there is something safe about that other person, like you have found a safe place to keep yourself, and you never knew that it would be inside another person all along.
I don’t actually know what falling in love feels like. Or, I only know one version, my own story. For me it was slow and gradual, almost as slow and gradual as the coming apart. So when I write about falling in love, I try to remember — was there one moment? A day? A shared look? When did I fall in love? And just as difficult to understand, to parse, is the moment when I looked again and did not love, and felt frightened, frightened that love, like a commodity, like crude oil or salt or soybeans, could run dry. You tap the same vein you tapped before, and now there is the shock of nothing there.
So okay, I’m writing a story about a fantasy world where the gods tell you who your soulmate is and set you up at opposite ends of a long road. And you have to walk to meet him or her, a long, treacherous journey full of snakes and bewitching temptresses and demons who will turn you into a pig if you eat the wrong thing. And it is up to you to finish the journey or not, and you won’t know until you get to the end whether the other person gave up. Maybe you have to go the whole journey instead of half of it, fighting demons and ghosts, and discover the other person hasn’t had the courage to take a single step.
There is this joy that a writer gets while writing. It’s the feeling that all the world is suddenly yours, presented like an ornate jeweled box in your hand, and you have the key. It’s the feeling that no matter what’s going on in your life, you will soon be able to make sense of it all; you will soon tell the story that will make life seem beautiful and rare, that you will soon see the ones you love in a new way and want to hold them close. It’s the feeling that your story — as soon as you get it out, as soon as you finish that sentence — will make the lovers swoon and the parents weep, that will make everyone remember to care better for the children, for each other.
I am a writer and so I’m expecting I will get that feeling any day now.
There’s no end to the story beginnings I can think up. In the past, when I got stuck spinning like this, endlessly beginning stories, always beginning new stories, unable to end any of them, Jenn could pull me out of my death roll. I’d open my drawer and see a tiny note stuck to my latest page of beginnings: what does your character see with his third eye? I’d close the door and write to answer her question. I’d go to lunch and when I came back, another note would be stuck to my typewriter: imagine the story from the point of view of the mother. I’d write and write, imagining. After dinner, I’d return and pull out my drawer: another note would await me. Your character is dead. He has been telling the story as a ghost. I couldn’t stop writing. I an- swered the secret questions she gave me to answer. They were just silly prompts, she told me. Just something to get you going. But they felt like magic. Like I was writing to tell her something, to answer these vital questions she was asking me. We didn’t talk about the prompts. But whenever I was stuck, they would appear, written in a tiny hand, on little slips of white paper. What if there was a time machine that– what happens when a long-lost brother appears — what if he can’t remember that day but she can — I wrote and wrote. I wanted to tell her the story.
There are multiple kinds of four AM out there and I’ve experienced my share of them. There are the four AM’s where you’re working for a deadline and you’ve just got to slog through your work, so you do, one mechanical foot at a time.
There are the four AM’s where you let friends take you out against your better judgment and you find yourself grinding against the bodies of people you don’t know, and something you took is traveling like liquid fire through your veins, through the bird’s nest of neurons in your brain.
There’s the four AM where you just met this girl and don’t want to stop talking, where even after you hang up you can’t get to sleep, everything is alive and awake, the universe is calling, the radio is playing the perfect song, you get your jacket and walk the streets and every other night walker knows you, knows that everything is connected to the novel you’re writing, and all of these people, all the cops, homeless people, partiers, drunks, loners, lovers, all of them are offering themselves to you, willing you to tell their story. There is joy in these late hours.
The feeling I have at this four AM is more that everything I have ever written is crap. It’s the feeling that I might as well keep writing, even though it won’t make me feel more connected to anybody, it will only make me feel lonely. Kind of like the feeling that I may as well jerk off even though it won’t help me feel better, it’s just something to do, a way to feel.
The typewriter’s clicking must be keeping Jenn awake. I really should keep it down. But there are deadlines, stories that need to be written. Soon the sun will come up over that unfamil- iar skyline in the window and I’ll want to stop.
I’ll want to think about the time we rode our bikes to a cruddy New England beach in the middle of winter and watched the foamy gray ocean hurl itself at the sand in a rage. We made sea walls out of sand and rocks and shells and stayed, burrowing into each other’s arms, until the waves had washed them entirely away.
Does she think about that too? I type out a sentence or two slowly but I can’t write more, it’s too close, too close to me. I think instead about the the day, the salt on our arms and tongues, the way the sea wall eroded until all the sharp edges had melted and softened.
I’m writing a story about two political prisoners in a despotic country, a husband and wife, who are imprisoned in adjacent cells, but they don’t know it. They start writing messages to each other through an elaborate knocking code system — or notes passed to the guards? Through a loose brick in the wall? — and without knowing who the other is, they fall in love. Then one day they can’t bear not knowing what the other looks like any longer, and they pry that brick loose so they can see each other’s faces, and then they know.
What happens then?
It’s nearing five. A false dawn is lightening the window but our rooms are still dark. I knock on our shared wall but she doesn’t knock back. She’s too deeply asleep.
I’m writing a story about a man who falls asleep and who can’t wake up, but instead of sleeping into the future he sleeps into the past. When he wakes up, the girl he loves is young and beautiful again, and all the mistakes he’s made have been erased. The slate is clean. What a relief, what a wonderful gift. A miracle. I’m calling it Reverse van Winkle. Or maybe Retro Van Winkle.
Titles aren’t my strong suit.
But in the end he has to learn that such transformations, such miracles, aren’t really possible. We can’t actually drink from the waters of the Lethe; there is no such thing as being wiped clean. In actuality we aren’t like computer hard drives that can be erased; we are like records, where the grooves are set in the black plastic and are permanent.
So in the story Retro van Winkle discovers that it isn’t the girl he loves at all: it’s her daughter. Twenty-odd years have passed after all, and she has had a daughter with somebody else. And Retro van Winkle weeps and beats his breast and feels pretty creepy besides.
I’m thinking about how when it rained she used to sit in a chair and watch the rain move across our city, and something sad and secret would come into her eyes, something I didn’t un- derstand. And if I asked what was wrong or tried to join her a door would close between us and I knew there was no place for me there, not then, not with her, not in the secret life without words that she led.
I get up. I pace the office with my hands behind my back. This is another thing writers do. There is a cloud of romance around my entire profession, and it’s thick and choking as smoke. Hard to see the real person somewhere at the center.
She asked me to write her a story, but I couldn’t. When I said that she nodded and gave a kind of bitter laugh. Of course not, she said.
I wanted to tell her, I can’t because you are not a person of words. When I think about you I have no words left, nothing I can say. But because that scares me, to have no words, I didn’t explain. She was angry. You’d rather play with these silly worlds, she said. All these beginnings. They are only a game to you. And she grabbed a handful of beginnings, a great sheaf of them, and tossed them into the air like confetti. I scrambled across the floor, gathering up beginnings, plucking them out of the air. Like they were precious.
If you can’t write for me, at least write an ending, she said. Imagine it.
But I can’t.
So I write about science fiction worlds and World War II lockets instead.
Somewhere in my drawer I’ve collected the little notes she left. I pull open the drawer and my heart jumps: there is a new one on top of my stack of half-finished drafts. Or I don’t know how new it is. I haven’t checked the drawer in weeks. It’s just a little drawing of a question mark. Always remember to ask why, it says.
I sit down at the typewriter. It’s very early in the morning or maybe it still counts as night. I am very tired. But I have to write. I have to ask why. I’m writing a story about a clown who wants to become the lion-tamer in the circus.
I’m writing a story about a gang of school kids who run away from home.
I’m writing a story about this guy…
I stop. It’s so fragile that if I think the wrong thing, the idea will shatter. I have to hold still.
This guy who is thinking about this girl…
I don’t have to ask why. I know why. I write why.
I stretch; my back complains. Writers are bound to get aches and pains. It’s a tough job. But the light is creeping across the floor now, warming my shoulder blades. I get up like an old man. I am old. I’ve lived a dozen lives tonight. More. But I can still step lightly. I can tiptoe across the floor to the bedroom.
This room is still dark; the curtains are drawn. I can only see her as a suggestion, a shape I know. I’ve been sneaking in and sleeping near her for weeks but now I put my arm around her and hold tight.
She wakes. She’s not used to it. She is suddenly stiff under my arm. What is it, she asks.
I found your note.
I left it weeks ago. You stopped looking for them.
I want to tell her I’m writing a new story. But she’s heard it before. The beginnings of my stories are filling the breathing space of this apartment. They fall and settle like snow. We’re buried in beginnings.
I say, The stories are about you. All of them.
She says, after a long time, I know.
I put my arms around her, hold tight as she shakes. I know there’s no good way to end this. The ways we’ve tried before are always so vague and unsatisfactory. Apologies. The promises we make, always sliding toward disappointment. We’ve disappointed each other too many times.
But maybe there’s a way not to say anything. For us to bow to each other in silence, and for me to live the life without words that she lives. Like if you unwrap a shell of words there is feeling beneath, in the deep animal parts of ourselves, the parts that burrow, touch, and hold. Like if I hold you — like this — the quiet of morning will find us this way, not thinking anything.