Do you enjoy transitions in your life? Do you feel their heft, resist them, then embrace?
At the start of this week, my last night in Amsterdam brought hours of fidgety insomnia. I couldn’t understand why, for I’d slept so well the other Amsterdam nights, as if rescued from normal pressures by escaping. I recalled Marina Benjamin, author of Insomnia, a book that has affected me greatly, talking in a book reading about turning the usual view of insomnia as a vile absence into something of a presence, a time for “interrogating and exploring.” So I did my best to just tolerate the fidgetiness and in the morning we shifted towns and I hung on and then, knowing a change was needed, in new cafe, a new town, new air, new light, new mind … I got really cracking on what I’m meant to do here. I have changed.
I can do it. I can do it.
When did you last feel like throwing a glass of wine across the room, so intense was your welling irritation that something was amiss? You keep staring at a problem or an issue or an article or something you’ve made. You fidget and suppress a groan. This is physical! You hate yourself and once you cure yourself of that self-hatred, you certainly despise the original issue, this … this … thing that hurts so much.
I’m in a faraway Dutch cafe and I’m reading, for the nth time, a chapter draft. It reads quite well. It tells the story. It seems to choreograph this and that event, this and that character. Nothing seems completely shitty. Yet something is wrong, a key feature is awry. This chapter lacks the life you felt in the previous chapter. It’s drizzling outside and soon you’ll leave work (it’s your birthday, after all) to spend a pleasant afternoon in an unusual museum, in strolling, in cooking, in reading. But that bloody chapter!
Well, I’m here to tell you now (those seven words actually echo an old CCR song!) that what I’m going through is positive not negative. That’s how the brain assimilates new comprehension: it has figured out a new connection is needed but the conscious brain veneer hasn’t caught up yet. This is positive not negative.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself…
This month of redrafting is weird. Waves of debilitating panic wash over me. I think, frick me, why did I ever begin this, will I ever finish, isn’t every thought and word garbage?
But I’ve been here before. The only way forward is the next small step. Do something and progress is there. “And the world is not what it seems to poor blind birds,” sing The Felice Brothers on the wonderful real-poetry folk savagery of new album Undress, the sound fills earbuds while around me the hubbub of Cafe Fika burbles. A waitress glances at me waving my arms in mime, she smiles. I smile. I can do this.
All good times come to an end and I lazed around a bit during my last two days in Amsterdam, and today’s easy 100 kilometer train ride southeast to Nijmegen nonetheless chewed up time, and I felt myself growing impatient, and the impatience grew, and this university town didn’t at first feel at home like Amsterdam did, and …. you get the picture. Well, Cafe Fika, a sprawling cafe edging towards a proper eatery, might not be like the magical Cafe Koosje, with its half-seedy bar patina, but as soon as I sat down here, my shoulder knots dissolved. I’m drafting and redrafting. All wounds are salved.
It’s 4:14 PM in Cafe Koosje in the Plantage district of Amsterdam, a few tram stops out of the tourist-packed centre. I was always going to resist being fussy, just picking a local cafe, because the point was the work not the precisely intricate cafe details, but this place is brilliant and I’m working really well, quite as well as the original purpose impelling this trip. So let me ignore the last six days (I think they were okay) and talk about now.
And that is the context. Check out this Austin Kleon post that in turn references World of Tomorrow, a short film by Dan Hertzfeldt, and listen to our hero: “Now is the enemy of all of the dead.” Indeed. Today I went through, once again, my very first book chapter. It’s so familiar I can almost recite it, which makes it hard to edit, but, after initial hesitation, I’ve powered through and amped it up and I think it works.
Tomorrow the dead will witness me being the now.
The pressure has eased off and now I’m celebrating internally the year I’ve had so far. Hours worked, hours done. Part of the pleasure has been daily, sometimes twice daily, sojourns at Finders Keepers, an ideal writer’s café. Lovely coffee, always room, splendid people, airy lightness, great music … just the ant’s pants.
Everything today in the choppy sea of my work is hidden from view. Getting ready to flee the Southern Hemisphere means taking the clay of my book in a suitcase and that’s tough. One foot wrong and I’ll curse myself next week. I approach the task in different ways – sometimes sorting physical piles of crap, sometimes sifting through folders of files, sometimes gleaning from past notes on what to do – and slowly clarity emerges, or at least the deception of clarity. Some material I take as softcopy, using brilliant cross-device aggregator Evernote. Some I print out at Officeworks, slip into folders, and stash in my suitcase. All of it is heavy with meaning, with import. A sense of thrill gooses my neck.
July’s last day winks out. I’m seven months into my Author Big Year (it’s a 3-month year because I kicked off in December) and the discipline of daily work is bearing fruit, though not always uniformly. In the fortnight or so since I last checked in, I’ve averaged 7 hours a day, quite satisfactory for a period with some family imposts and a nagging cold.
But inner peace won’t come. In five days we head to the lowland countries of Europe. It’s a grand experiment to shift the writing office away from over-familiar, cold Melbourne, four weeks writing in four cities, but the phrase “grand experiment” only captures the thrilling aspect of freshness, not the terror of being away from my desktop and books and files. The plan is to “redraft” pages already written and to assemble for the first time a storyline, a coherent crystalline shape, from go to whoa. My study is covered with pages and books and I’m trying to figure out what hardcopy material to take with me and what softcopy material and it’s complicated and I’m scared … and it’s doing my head in.
Tomorrow is make or break day for this nonsense. And of course it isn’t nonsense. In essence this sifting and sorting kicks off the grand experiment.
A flurry of activity. I take facts and dates and accounts of those facts and dates, and I restate them in my own untutored words, then I assemble little plot segments, then I draft up crap, then I reassess, then I rewrite for effect, then I… and so on and so on. I’m now in Sydney, in Marrickville, and it’s time to look at nuclear accidents again. Thoughts and words tumble and swirl.