The sixth post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series.
There is nothing tragic or awkward about obscurity. It’s the fate of all but a very tiny fraction of mankind … their iron destiny … even for those who exhaust themselves against that reality. At best they leave a 70-year footprint. A mention in an obscure history book that will go out of print in a decade. A familial legend that dies out in three generations.
I was working in a well-lit warehouse with a row of west-facing, sun-filled windows, an aroma of dust and empty space in the air. The work was solitary, sublime. I loaded twenty pound boxes of paper on and off eight-foot shelves. When required I constructed or tore down shelves, hauled boxes of paper to the production room where fifteen indifferent temps printed letters and stuffed envelopes. I loved the work, they didn’t.
At this time I was in college, working through my English Literature degree, so when I was idle I could study, sprawled out on an empty shelf, my books in front of me, my pencil behind my ear. But when I was busy, the work was mindless enough I could carry a folded sheet of paper with long stretches of text (Romans 8 or “Mending Wall”) to memorize.
This was an era of feeling like my life was going somewhere (I was no longer sleeping on my mother’s couch), a sense that I could do no wrong. A sense that something extraordinary would happen any day, a call from a publisher, a promising letter from The Paris Review.
Strange considering my outlook on literature, writing, and writers.
As long as I can remember I’ve been dogged by this sense of futility … like there is nothing significant I could contribute to the world. But this wasn’t Demian feeling sorry for himself. I viewed pretty much everyone else this way, everything else this way. I was a student of Camus, Kierkegaard. Life was absurd, and I had to live with it. Make the best of it.
Of course I saw the value lawyers, civil engineers, or plumbers could contribute to civilization. I saw the value that great nurses, teachers, and architects could contribute to society. Yet, I questioned the value of everyone else, particularly actors, car salesmen, writers, and athletes.
Towards the end of my shift I got in the habit of sitting at the back of the warehouse, near the windows, watching the sun set and people scamper to their cars, in no mood to suffer the heat. During those times I dropped into a philosophical frame of mind.
I wondered what a degree in English Literature brought to the world. What was it I did that made me unique? Not unique as in I was special, but unique as in I had a purpose. What was my purpose ? We all had one, right? Or was I indispensable? Anyone could load or unload boxes. Anyone could write a story or essay. There were English Literature scholars who could run circles around me. What was I trying to do competing in this space?
My wife and I lived in a small, ground-level apartment. It had two bedrooms, one bath, a small living room, a tiny dining room, and even smaller kitchen (with the best dishwasher we’ve ever owned). It was practical for a writer. There was a private patio about the size of a king sized bed, walled-in with brick, poetic when wet. We potted a lavender in the corner.
We slept in one bedroom, I worked in the other, where I taught myself how to type, prepared for in-class speeches, wrote essays on John Berryman, wrote novellas on very sick women. This is where I took the fool’s errand of writing seriously.
Funny thing, the essay actually won a prize. The novella didn’t merit mention passed my instructors cryptic critique. I gained some traction with a short book of poetry (I’d overcome my embarrassment). But that traction might have been a figment of my own fame-obsessed imagination. The professor might have said kind things just to get me out of her office.
But there I was … thinking what I did was something anyone could do. Nothing out of the ordinary. Writing was a muscle anyone could flex, right?
We were sitting in our apartment, eating (what, I do not remember, but above average since Angie could cook) at our mahogany table. I wasn’t eating so much as brooding, a heavy frame of mind that bled into the room. Something had changed recently, and I felt everything I’d done up to that point was worthless, temporary. Writing poetry was no different than loading boxes on a shelf. Now, every mistake I made counted. And everything I did was a mistake.
My wife wanted to break the grave tenor, lure me away from my short exile, keep me from curling in a blanket (an apt response). Yet, carrying on a conversation with me could be difficult. She navigated the terrain perfectly, and led us to her conclusion:
Demian, not everyone can write.
That had to be the brightest thing I’d ever heard, the shining and imperishable dream, but I refused to acknowledge it. Instead, I cried, and walked away, drifted into the bedroom and cried, and listened to her crying in the other room, at the dinner table, our pork chops, Parmesan potatoes (or whatever) cooling.
I slumped on our bedroom floor and wondered: What do I do with that? It was a revelation, but a promise that struck me as false. But what if it were true?
My wife and I eventually reconvened — in the living room, dining room, my office, the patio, I don’t know — without talking about what just happened. I was a private person, so I didn’t talk about my feelings. But I think she knew, because she sat down, wrapped her arms around me, and held me.
And I think I knew, too.
After that, the space in the warehouse seemed to change. It was no longer me working in obscurity, doing the mundane. It was me working to flex my muscles. To grow. To stand out. To break through the glass ceiling of my own perceptions, out into the world, and pursue the gift given me. To suffer the heat and the hostility, the occasional storm. It was me doing something only I could do with something only a few had.
Next up: “How I Beat the (Lightweight) College Demon.”