I’m home today with that kind of cold that feels like someone is standing on your chest doing jumping jacks. I picked it up from my 7-year-old. He was in the middle of a two-hour game of basketball last Saturday when he came to the sidelines for a drink and told me he wasn’t sure he could go on. But as soon as the ball was back in play, he ran back out onto the massive court at Basketball City here in Boston, pumping his arms like some miniature Carl Lewis, chest cold be damned. He spent Monday and Tuesday home with a fever and hacking cough. Today he’s back in school and I’m left on the day bed in my office reading The New Yorker, looking at the piles of shit stacked around me. I had this idea a week or two ago that I should clean my office, you see, but only got to the point of pulling everything out and not to actually sorting much of anything.
There’s a big box of photos randomly tossed together still in the closet, all alone now that I have pulled everything else out that was covering it up. Books, random charger cords, a pair of boxing gloves, two meditation cushions, and piles of yellow pads are strewn around my office floor. But that box is the thing I haven’t been able to face. It contains images of a difficult childhood, of a failed first marriage, of a painful divorce, of little kids I took care of the best way I knew how, of college drinking binges, and God knows what else. I am sure I weeded the most painful images out before tossing packs of prints in there (remember when you actually printed pictures rather than shared them on Facebook?), but you can never be completely sure what a two-foot-square box of old pictures might contain. So I am procrastinating. For a guy who is obsessed with order, to the point of hiding every mess in a drawer somewhere, the idea of pulling everything out and then just leaving it there for days on end is uncharacteristic. But I don’t know what else to do. I’m not ready to clean up the mess yet. I need to stare at it some more and think.
The writer I most identify with my childhood is John McPhee. He wrote a book about the birch bark canoe that my dad read out loud to my brother and me when we were probably 12 and 10, respectively. He wrote about Bill Bradley, the basketball legend and statesmen, and the headmaster of Deerfield Academy, about the great Alaska wilderness and the geology of the earth. He wrote and taught at Princeton where my dad, grandfather, uncles, brother, and sister all went to school (but not me). He used language to make us laugh out loud and to help us follow a nonfiction story like it was the greatest novel ever written. It made me want to see things and, ultimately, try my hand at writing, even as a second career after being a finance guy (albeit in book publishing and then at newspaper companies where a lot of writing was going on).
So it’s no accident that lying around this morning I was reading “Structure,” by John McPhee, in the current issue of The New Yorker. He is a kind of writing-manhood God in my mind, which links me back to my roots, my dad, and even my paternal grandfather. McPhee’s meta-reflections later in life on exactly how and why he writes the way he does—the meticulous research, the notecards, the linking together of scenes and people into coherent narrative form—are sacred to me in the way that only Stephen King’s book On Writing even approaches.
This particular piece was refreshing in that McPhee talks explicitly about the struggle of chronology against theme. As someone who has written and re-written a book-length memoir a dozen times—first in strict chronological order, then in thematic arrangement, only to put it back in chronological order, and then give up—it’s a relief to know that even my hero has the same problems I do when trying to figure out how to take a huge pile of material and impose order.
But in reading about McPhee’s more complex approaches—for instance, where he starts two-thirds of the way through a tale, then goes back to the beginning to tell it from start to finish, surpassing the point of departure to the very end—I come back around to the piles of crap surrounding me as I write this and, frankly, the lack of discipline I have most of the time when writing.
I am often enlisted in the thankless task of trying to organize and put away my 7-year-old’s endless supply of toys with tiny plastic pieces, games with missing parts, and art supplies. And I am always getting into trouble. I like a clean surface, be it a family room floor, a kitchen table, or an office desk. But taking an armful of toys and shoving them in a closet may solve the problem in the short-term, but in the end my wife discovers what I have done and is not particularly happy about it.
My instinct is always to force a kind of half-baked order. I like to check the box, get shit done, spend as little time in the chaos of that middle place where nothing makes any sense. And that goes for writing as well as life. Yet as much as I try to set out in a direction I think is fruitful, I find myself waiting for inspiration and coming up with little, much as McPhee describes in the opening lines of the piece on structure:
Out the back door and under the big ash was a picnic table. At the end of the summer, 1966, I lay down on it for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea how to start a piece of writing for The New Yorker. I went inside for lunch, surely, and at night, of course, but otherwise remained flat on my back on the table.
I suppose writer’s block, and a general angst among the artistically inclined, has a long history and a certain amount of celebrated status. If you are creating something beautiful or great, it’s supposed to torture you.
But that’s not really my problem. I’m a man of action. I can spew forth words on the page without even thinking about where they are taking me, like so many toys thrown into a closet or a box of photos documenting a life that has had its twists and turns to be sure. My tendency is to want to skip on by the hard part, to brew another cup of coffee and pretty up the pig that is my latest writing project, my office closet, or, in fact, certain aspects of my life. Dealing with uncertainty, the messiness of life, and the incubation period involved in writing well are not things that come naturally to me.
It was our 10th wedding anniversary this last December. My wife Elena gave me clear instruction on the variety of gift she would enjoy having to celebrate the occasion. I went to the store in question and looked at the variety of the item she had talked about. This was a fairly major purchase to mark an important day in our commitment to each other. I wanted it to be special. Always before I would look over the selection of colors and sizes and then, within a minute or two of talking to the salesperson, choose (as close as I felt any human being could) the right item, hand over my credit card, and ask it be gift wrapped.
Yet, something completely unlike me happened. I got to the point of selecting the color of gold and the style that I wanted and took a guess at the right size (this was a bracelet, so judging how big around my wife’s wrist is can be a tricky business). Then I heard these words come out of my mouth, even though the salesperson was frothing at the mouth in anticipation of a nice commission: “I am going to have to think about it.”
In the days that followed, I realized in casual conversation with my wife that both the size and the color of gold that I had picked out would have been wrong. A week later I went back and was able to identify the absolutely perfect gift. I gave it to Elena on our anniversary and she hasn’t taken it off since.
I am in no rush to put away the piles of crap that surround me. I keep organizing bits and pieces each day here in my office. I’m not ready to dive into that box of photos yet. But I can see it over there and I know that time is coming.
Like my experience buying the bracelet, I’m now thinking that maybe I should go about it in the opposite way from my usual instinct. Maybe I should keep my mess in plain view of my desk as long as I can possibly stand it, whether that turns out to be days, weeks, or even months. That way when I finally do put it all away, I’ll know it’s in an order that was meant to be. Just like my writing. And my life.