The first post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series.
It was the year that I started working for myself. From home, perched in the second floor corner bedroom arranged as an office. Overlooking the crab apple tree and our backyard. I thought it would be the year of flying.
It was the year I fell apart.
I thought I would enjoy working alone. I’m an introvert. I prefer ideas over people. Books over cocktail parties. I thought working for myself would be utopia. One step closer to heaven on earth. A dream I nurtured since I was a teenager reading William Burroughs.
A house on a hill. A room with a window. A desk near the window. A typewriter on the desk. Piles of books about the desk.
Look down from the window and you see a garden. Then a long lawn. And a road that winds through the hills. Miles before it reaches civilization.
Morning, noon, and night spent reading, writing, and wandering. In the evening a novelist pops in for a pint. On the weekend a photographer and a poet crash until Sunday afternoon.
Bliss fit for an Emily Dickinson, J. D. Salinger, or Thomas Pynchon. Bliss fit for a self-absorbed intellectual snob.
But I went about it all wrong.
In the morning I walked the forty feet to my office, opened the blinds, opened my lap top, and did nothing but write behind closed doors. Occasionally I would bounce from email to social media to Skype, but then back to the writing.
I would pop out for lunch or dinner, but hurry back to the office. I would pop out to crack a joke with the children, but hurry back to the office. I would pop out for a refresher to throw some washers. That it was in the middle of the summer made it seem all the more oppressive. I could not bear to be out long in the heat. And so back into the office.
It didn’t help I tried to take a 16-week biblical Greek course in 5 weeks at the same time. My goal was to scratch a ten-year-old itch–the one I entertained each year: Go back to graduate school. Get the credential. The BA is not enough.
Yet the course ate me alive. And I’m certain my family thought I would eat them alive. In just two-and-a-half weeks I barely passed three quizzes and an exam. My professor said while those grades were passing–those were the easy tests. The real work lay ahead.
Mind you, this was not for a lack of trying. I would spend 17 hours over the weekend studying. No children. No wife. No fun. We refer to it as the black days of biblical Greek. I made a very tough, but wise, decision to quit.
Once I pitched Greek to the side, I focused on work. I made working my number one priority. And I began to accept every bit of work that came my way. This led me to working long hours on long days. Including weekends. And choosing some jobs I wish I hadn’t (more on that later).
Fourteen hour days were not unusual.
Month after month I cavorted with the players in my industry. Wrote blog posts they loved. Rose in reputation. Made good money. It started out sublime, but I eventually came to hate every minute of it. I felt cheap. And worthless. Is this how I wanted to be remembered? Something was wrong–but what?
Soon, my life was nothing but work. I grew to dread it and found myself cracking open a beer or two in the middle of the afternoon to get through the remainder of the day. I took to ducking underneath the desk when my phone rang. I began to stay up later and sleep in longer. At 9 in the morning I would have to physically pull my head off the pillow and make myself get out of bed to face the day.
Freelancing was supposed to be liberating. But it was the year I fell apart.
Mind you: this was the year I thought I was finally–truly–doing it my way. But it was not. It was fear every step of the way. My prayers were a catalogue of modern-day anxiety:
Do not let us lose the house.
Do not let us go bankrupt.
Save me from this misery of constant work.
Do not let me go crazy.
There is no question about it that during this time I was flailing. I reached out to literature. Read books like Catch 22 and Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone … which did nothing but feed into my despair. Wrote poems about my misery. Bad poems, like the following:
What would possess a man who saw a combine
chewing up soybeans on a sunny
October afternoon to break his nine-
minute mile stride to cut across the road
and plunge headlong into the rotating
blades? Most theories are so-so. Boredom.
Failure. Broken heart. I’ve fallen for all
three at some point in my life. But of late
I’ve been smitten by a fourth…
I brooded on music like the terrifyingly fantastic song “Failure” by the Swans, a hymn to futility. But why? I wept for every reason and no reason at all. This was like being in high school all over again.
Other bizarre habits formed. I would weigh myself four or four times a day (I’ve weighed the same for the last ten years). Read tabloid blogs. Curl my lip and fly into a rage if someone tweeted something annoying.
Then I would stare in the mirror and wonder: Why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you sulking? Why are you tormenting yourself? Can’t you see beyond yourself? Why can’t you see your way out of this? What is there to see? You know better, Demian. You know better.
This was not about getting old. Or losing a child. Or being crippled. Or being unemployed or divorced or abandoned by friends. This was about something else entirely. But what? And why?
It was January 2012. We circled the church under a ceiling of grey clouds for half an hour, the 80 foot gold steeple our hub. I wore a long sleeve shirt and fleece jacket. My pastor wore much of the same. My ears were cold and his nose was red. My teeth jumped around in my mouth as I untangled the past nine months, and my hair kept getting into my eyes. I spoke a mile a minute, catalogued and classified griefs with the compulsion of a hoarder. I never let up (odd behavior coming from a guy who can’t wait to get out of a conversation the moment he starts it).
My pastor listened patiently, asked questions deftly, kept pace adequately. Towards the end of the conversation, after letting me exhaust my mind and wear a path around the church parking lot, my pastor, getting me to finally state the obvious, asked, “Is it possible you are depressed?”
We stopped walking. I looked up at a lamppost. A car shot by on the road. I said, “Depressed? No, I’m not depressed, I’m falling apart. And if I don’t do anything about it I think I’m going to die.”
Next up: “This Is Not Writing–High School Poetry.
Image source: Sometimes I Wish for Falling