How I write
If I lose the compulsion, the effort will go nowhere.
Feeling anxious. Is it too much coffee? Or just the prewriting jitters? I can’t tell, although I did just finish my third cup. The doubts begin.
Doubts seem to drive my writing. Doubts about the world, myself and why things are the way they are.
My writing begins by seeing what I want to say – mental pictures. Then, when the pictures become clear, I turn them into words. When the words begin to flow, I find that the doubts start to resolve, to evolve, into confidence that I can do this.
I see the tents of homeless covering the sidewalk, with empty retail and restaurants behind. Before the pandemic these were busy, happy spaces that anchored the multi-storied glass buildings to the ground. Now the buildings are empty, too.
Then I move into what I used to think of as daydreams, to take the words forward.
Only the sidewalks are occupied. Occupied with those who would never be allowed in the lovely shops, or the corporate lobbies. At least not as they are.
Next I look for what will compel me to tell the rest of the story – beyond the now-defined mental pictures. What will put such a grip on my attention that I can’t let go? Without that complete, all-consuming compulsion, I won’t go forward.
I’m angry these days. And I use that anger every day to fuel my creative effort. Mostly it’s anger at myself for not understanding, for not paying attention to what was happening around me earlier in my life. I was so unaware.
A van with the city’s markings on it pulls up. A group of protectively clothed and masked city workers step out with stacks of flyers, and begin distributing the notices to anyone who will take them. I shudder as I take one, envisioning myself living on the edge.
I’ve learned that I explore my pain and embarrassment for the insights I need to drive me to write. Shame, loneliness and loss play a role, too. Along with pride and vanity: I know I’m better than this.
The notice said that this sidewalk tent city was going to be pushed out by the cops later in the day. It also showed locations in parks and under bridges that were okay to move to.
I have a need to show others what I can do. I need the feedback to keep me going. Nothing unusual about that; pride and vanity, both there as writing fuel. Gotta look good – always a motivator.
I mine my life experiences for insights. Nothing unusual about that either.
“What’s going on here?” I ask one of the tent dwellers.
“Fucking property owners have been pressing city Hall to get us out of here for weeks. It’s a great spot for us. Mostly out of the wind, and the sidewalk is warm because of the steam pipes that run below.”
And she adds, “We’re not hurting anyone. These places are all empty.”
My struggles, though painful at times, have been minor. But for whatever reason, I can easily picture myself living hand-to-mouth.
Homeless numbers exploding in a cold, wet city. A city not particularly inclined to help. Cops forced to deal with social and economic issues far beyond their control. I wonder again if it’s the virus that got us here, or the virus that showed us where we are.
I got to participate in the world, and to use my struggles as fuel for economic success and creative growth. I’m one of the winners. I never had to live in a tent on the street.
The word spreads among the tent people. “No, we’re not moving,” they say. “Cops don’t really have the manpower to pull this off.”
There are more than a thousand tents on this stretch of heated sidewalk. And the police department has lost hundreds of cops to resignations and retirements. Cops disgusted at what they’ve been forced to do, and the lack of understanding and support.
I’m now four days into writing this piece about writing. I always wonder why it takes me so long to write, wishing it didn’t. I know how my process goes, so there’s actually nothing to wonder about. I know the steps – from inspiration to completion – well. I know the distractions along the way. But in spite of knowing the process, I have to go through the feelings every time.
Head count has been dropping steadily among the police departments in the city and the surrounding counties. Some of the former cops are now living on the streets, feeling better about protecting people than cracking the heads of those who are desperate. Are they the Robin Hoods of this moment? Maybe.
A tricky balance – that’s what it is when I write about myself in order to show people things about themselves. A balance between humility and pride.
Many in the camp have jobs. Minimum wage isn’t enough to pay rent in the city, so the tents are the alternative. Food banks provide some meals. The City Council has funded the sani-cans. Even the property owners have chipped in on sanitation. Not surprising, considering the alternative.
I spent a lot of time alone when I was little. I remember it well. I could taste the emptiness of being alone – yes, literally taste it. Playing alone, I discovered that making up stories I could act out in my head would sweep me away into what I now know is the flow. Forgetting my loneliness. Forgetting time. The pleasure of those stories anchored me. That’s when I began creating the pictures in my mind. Pictures that I later learned to turn into words on a page.
Reporting by a public radio station and a local paper shows that it’s those who grew up in homes below the poverty line who have the hardest time getting off the streets. No model, no safety net. Those from middle-class households can rejoin mainstream society more easily, if they find a stable place to live.
I was always a reader, even when they said I couldn’t read. I could read; I just didn’t want to read what was assigned. The “can’t read” thing still hurts.
As an adolescent, I was lonesome. I was adrift. And I was determined to get myself out of there. Where to, I didn’t know; I just wanted out. I’ve never been one to give up on something I feel compelled to do. My compulsion worked: With the help of a few inspirational teachers, I got the boost I needed to get out. But I always feared the alternative was a real possibility.
When the cops arrived to clear the sidewalk, a few of their own were there to meet them. The conversation that followed would have been unthinkable only a few months earlier…
“Hey, Bob, what are you doing here? I thought you quit to spend time…”
“I did, but when my wife lost her job we got evicted and here we are. I’m not the only unemployed cop here. There’s at least 10 of us now.”
That sidewalk wasn’t cleared. The political fight inside the police union ultimately ended in a sort of stalemate, with many of the employed officers siding with and protecting the homeless.
It’s said that property owners are beginning to be swayed. And the governor is getting involved.
Finding the compulsion that drives the motivation, driven by emotion, constrained by a distinct creative process. For me, that’s what mind pictures, determination and anger can do. For me, it’s all driven by the pleasure of being lost in the flow of creating new worlds and possibilities.
What’s your compulsion?