Returning to the Cave
Just as Cap’n J and I outfit the Nerka with emergency equipment – radio, bilge pumps, fire extinguishers – I reach for particular survival gear as a writer. Lately, the one I’ve been keeping closest is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. This book is a rare gift, one I flip open to a random page and find myself face to face with the truth I most need to hear. Today’s section, “The Cave,” is no exception:
One of the strangest aspects of a writing life is what I think of as going in and out of the cave. When we are in the middle of a piece of work, the cave is the only place we belong. Yes, there are practical considerations. Eating, for instance. Or helping a child with homework. Or taking out the trash. Whatever. But a writer in the midst of a story needs to find a way to keep her head there. She can’t just pop out of the cave, have some fun, go dancing, and then pop back in. The work demands our full attention, our deepest concentration, our best selves. If we’re in the middle – in the boat we’re building – we cannot let ourselves be distracted by the bright and shiny. The bright and shiny is a mirage, an illusion. It is of no use to us.
If there is a time for that brightness, it is at the end: when the book is finished and the revisions have been turned in, when you’ve given everything inside of you and then some. When the cave is empty. Every rock turned over. The walls covered with hieroglyphics that only you understand – notes you’ve written to yourself in the darkness…
Life over the past month has indeed been bright and shiny. I’d like to share all that goodness with you, posting photos and videos and news of friends’ upcoming events. I’d like to tell you how my residency concluded, with thoughtful reflections on the experience and gratitude for your letters and encouragement along the way. I’d like to respond to those of you who’ve asked about this year’s FisherPoets Gathering, sharing stories of Cap’n J’s debut performances (which, all nepotism aside, were amazing), his sister Ashley’s win of the On-Site Poetry Contest, and the pure joy this annual reunion brings. I’d like to tell you what a tremendous success last weekend’s She Tells Sea Tales was, as an inaugural fundraiser for Port Townsend’s Girls’ Boat Project and a powerful celebration of women in maritime trades.
What I really don’t want to tell you is that, in the midst of this inspirational lovefest, I’ve been having a hard time. A hard time: even in admission, I am less than authentic, reaching for a euphemism designed to maintain my “I’m fine” wall. I don’t want to tell you that in venturing so far from the cave, I’ve gotten lost in a different darkness. I don’t want to tell you about spontaneous weeping and sleeping too much. About the unnamed grief of watching day after day vanish without my participation. About being terribly aware that I am fucking up, yet feeling paralyzed to behave any differently.
Depression and anxiety are not usual states of being for me. My grimmest hours, having occurred in childhood and adolescence, have long been packed in memory’s basement – until now. Now should come as no surprise. I marched down those stairs, blew cobwebs aside, and flung the cardboard gate wide open. How can I be caught unaware by what I have invoked?
As a beloved mentor pointed out, “The guilt, shame – even when ‘just’ writing about it, you’re reliving those moments all over again as you recall them on the page.” Fun as that sounds, I bolted from the cave as soon as my residency ended. In person and online, I’ve been binge-socializing ever since, carefully positioning one delightful distraction after another between me and my writing. My job.
Yet as actively as I resist, every day that I don’t return to the cave leaves me feeling more lost than the day before. Distance sprawls between me and my work, vast acreage for self-doubt and fear to set up camp. Again I turn to Dani Shapiro, this time her reminder that a writer’s work is what will save her, even as she acknowledges the return won’t be easy.
The page is indifferent to us – no, worse. The page turns from us like a wounded lover. We will have to win it over, coax it out of hiding. Promise to do better next time. Apologize for our disregard. And then, we settle into the pattern that we know. Three pages. Two hours. A thousand words. We have wandered and now we are back. There is comfort in the familiar. We can do this. Breathe in, breathe out. Once again, just as we’ve been doing all along.
So this will remain a quiet place, friends, as I step away from the internets. Know that the radio silence isn’t you; it’s me. I’m endlessly grateful for your kindness, yet it’s obvious that as much as I admire the many people who succeed in writing their books while fully engaging with the bright and shiny outer world, I am not one of those people. I know only one way out of this, and that’s back to the cave.