During a two-hour question-and-answer session at our June residency, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo told the Antioch MFA community, “Commerce is fast, art is slow.”
I took that to mean, if you want to make something that didn’t exist before—something layered and meaningful, something unexpected—you have to take it slow.
That’s a challenge for me. I came to the MFA program after several years’ full-time teaching in a university, during which time only deadlines compelled me to write. I wrote for performance, and I had a busy life. I would wait until the last few weeks before a gig and then go underground, working day and night to finish.
A couple of years ago, I left my position at the university and went to Rwanda for a big, fast job. When it was done and I was home, it occurred to me that if I wanted my work life to be different—which I did—I would have to change the rhythm of how I spent my days. I would have to make new habits. I had no idea—and still don’t fully know—how profound that transformation may have to be.
I had a car. That car was part of me, part of who I was. It was a tomato-red 2002 Volkswagen Golf and, oh, I loved that car. I was a savvy driver. I knew the fastest route to anywhere in LA, any time of day. Just ask me. Me and that car, we were zippy. Hands-free on my cell phone, I was back and forth between GPS and Waze on little streets no one else knew were there. Meanwhile, Siri was taking dictation, sending text messages, emails. I was in a hurry.
One weird globally-warmed ninety-eight degree day last April, I noticed the air conditioning in my Golf was not working. I called my mechanic, Mauricio at Jomag in Silverlake, who’d been taking care of her since the end of the VW warranty. He said to bring her in, leave her there for an hour or two. I took the bus downtown (home) to await his diagnosis. An hour later, he called. It was bad news, the worst possible scenario: the compressor had gone. A new one would cost a minimum of a thousand bucks.
I recalled my accountant Mark’s objections when he learned I’d spent fifteen hundred to replace a timing belt, the first and only major work I’d had done in the twelve years I’d had her. “It’s the beginning of the end,” he barked. “Get rid of that heap.”
It wouldn’t get hot for a few months, right? I could keep her until then. I told Mauricio I’d be there in an hour to pick her up.
Ten minutes later, another call. More bad news. When his guys were moving the car into the lot, they saw the brakes were shot. The rear pads were worn down to the metal; the front weren’t as far gone, but he wasn’t sure he could save them.
How much? Another six to eight hundred.
I Googled “Blue Book, 2002 VW Golf”—four-door, power windows, power brakes, moon roof, monster sound, well-loved, in good shape. She was worth less than twenty-seven hundred dollars. And all the bodywork I’d refused to have done—the scratches and dents that prove you’ve lived lively, taken some risks—meant she was worth even less.
I did the math. I could try not having a car. I live downtown, at the hub of LA’s transport network. Within a few blocks of my building, there are buses and trains. Add to that Zipcar, Enterprise, Uber, Lyft. Plus, if I didn’t have a car, I wouldn’t have to pay the Tribune (owners of the LA Times) a small fortune every month to park in their lot.
Choosing not to replace the car was the beginning of a conscious slowing down. It would no longer be possible to schedule appointments back-to-back, morning to night, with an optimistic half-hour in between to get from one place to the next.
But within a week or two, I was aware of a deeper shift. On the Culver City-bound train one afternoon they announced we had “come into contact with an automobile.” No one was hurt, but we had to wait for the police to proceed. I made a phone call to the person I was to meet and sat reading in the motionless train for forty-five minutes. If we were stuck, it was not my job to find another route. Time in transit became that kind of sweet stolen time I’ve always relished on planes and trains, where what needs to get done (moving from place to place) will eventually get done. Or won’t. But it’s not up to me to make it happen.
This is about writing. Clearing the way for writing.
Most of what needs writing—what is worth writing—takes some digging. It’s not easy and, for me, it doesn’t come in one fell swoop. It takes some dribbling—like Jackson Pollack. Then comes the investigation of patterns, then new brush strokes, based on what’s been evoked by the dribbling. Bit by bit. And a commitment to that process on a regular basis is a commitment to going where the writing wants to go.
Russo spoke about how Elsewhere, his recent memoir about his mother, seems to some of his readers—and perhaps to him—to be a skeleton key that unlocks the autobiographical source of meanings in his fictional work. In those funny, funny novels, he is digging deep into his own raw material which is, at base, so dark. He’s going, by virtue of who he is, where he has to go. He said he was afraid writing outright about his past in Elsewhere might destroy his ability to write another novel, but he chose to write it anyway. And it didn’t.
Travel time has become reading and writing time. I started the first draft of this post Friday afternoon on the number 2 Sunset Boulevard bus, moving west towards Hollywood. I did the first edit early Sunday morning on the 733 Venice bus on my way to the beach.
Waiting for the bus and taking the bus has brought with it a gradual, visceral understanding that we are not in charge. We do the work. We plant the seeds. We exercise humility, and back away from the need to muscle things into existence. We invite things in. We give them room to enter.