Adrift

Day 31, 500 words, 31 days

I confess, I may have romanticized this writer’s life.

I imagined entire days spent reading classic literature and taking breaks jotting down passages that inspired me, and maybe writing some of my own. I would start off with my morning cup of coffee, perhaps go for a run if I felt the need to clear my mind, and then get to work at a reasonable morning hour – 10, or 10:30. By noon, I would pour a second or third cup if I felt the afternoon hours baiting me into submission, and sleep. Chances are, I’d end up napping anyway, with a book resting neatly over the bridge of my nose or with its pages spread over my chest. I’d be in some Zen-like state, unconsciously generating original ideas to write about – the kind I’d punch into a blank Evernote page to park for later. And late in the evening, if I couldn’t quiet the restless thoughts running in my head, I’d sneak out of bed and write a little more – perhaps along with a little nightcap, and if I took it at the right time, I’d knock myself out for good after I typed up my final words.

This is, however, not the usual day.

The version I actually live usually revolves around running morning errands like stress-inducing trips to the market, or remembering to hang out the laundry at a reasonable hour – like 10 or 10:30. By noon, I’ve missed lunch and debate whether it’s worth putting on some pants to go to get Char Hor Fun on the corner, or if I’m better off fixing myself the driest sandwich imaginable. Somehow, I fight off the spell that is sleep and manage to be alert enough to Tweet something tweet-worthy or skim over Facebook for something other than a Buzzfeed list. (I click on the Buzzfeed list anyway). By nightfall I’m wondering where my day went, and realize I hadn’t written a single thing worth posting. So I hit my hardest stride before 10 in the evening, pushing through a post around midnight just so I can earn the satisfaction of uninterrupted sleep.

I may have seen one too many movies of writer-types – the sort of miserly, unkempt professor of Wonder Boys or the manic-depressive one in Adaptation. There’s, of course, the feel good bunch too – the outcasted, but hopeful young writer in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or the diamond-in-the-rough discovered in Finding Forrester.

Reality is, I’m absolutely like none of those characters at all. I’m too fastidious about fixing the hair that I have left and I still actually put together outfits that don’t make me look like a child rummaging through his parent’s closet for “dress-up”. I didn’t fancy myself a writer when I was a kid, and I have a hard time believing I’ll be fortuitously discovered as one, as an adult.

The “writing life” and the “writer” itself remain such odd, though appealing, caricatures to me, but I find it hard to relate.

The truth about writing is that it’s just going to take a lot of work. It already has. The daily grind of it that brings about both magical epiphany and mind-bashing frustration. The practice and discipline of it make it more of a craft to be honed than a mere hobby to be dabbled with. The sheer effort it requires reminds me all the more that, like time itself, it’s never going to be free.

I’m already feeling the cost creep into my ideal, daily routine. I’m experiencing the quick loss of fresh ideas and concepts the longer my day goes without writing anything, because I’m too busy filling it with other responsibilities – like doing my own dishes or cleaning up after my cats or checking Facebook…for work.

All I know now, is that it will only get harder.

I don’t have the energy or patience to look back (yet!) at everything I’ve written. Measuring the amount of work (or words) I’ve amassed in the past month feels both daunting in task and in number. The “achievement” of which, doesn’t incite pride, so much as it does, genuine relief.

I stayed the course. I “ran the race.” I persevered through the really bad days and I capitalized, as best as I could, on the good ones.

I haven’t even begun to weigh what worked and what didn’t. But I suppose that sort of deliberation is for after-the-fact. Much after.

For now, I only feel the strong, unrelenting desire, to rest. Just for a while. Just long enough to get my bearings again – on the real day-to-day I’m about to experience once more, without this writing project tethering me to the anchors that were my tablet, keyboard, and desk.

After all, they have kept me afloat long enough. Now, it’s time to drift along.

On the Brink

Day 30, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s almost over.

What began as an exercise in commitment and discipline has since evolved into a daily battle of attrition. I feel mentally fatigued, pressured more than inspired, and a little too eager to begin other pursuits when this one remains unfinished.

Today was the most ordinary of days for me – the typical sort of easy-going routine that begins as I wake myself slowly out of my morning lull, hits a sudden and desperate halt for lunch, crescendoes with a short stint of productivity in the early hours of the afternoon, and resolves itself into smug satisfaction as I prepare to pick up my wife at school.

At different points of the day, I scoured for every day encounters to write about. Today, for instance, perhaps the friendly postman that assured me my wife’s postcard will make it to the U.S. on a ringgit stamp would have made for a decent story. Or the Muslim woman who sells me doughy ‘bao’ for a quick lunch. Earlier on in the process, I even dedicated an entire entry to my cats, though I haven’t mentioned them much since. I figured if they were the main characters of any given day of writing, it was probably a pretty uneventful day.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for Miles and Madu. Especially Madu, who, inexplicably, never really tires of me.)

This has been the most persistent challenge with this project – the task of making the most mundane things more than ordinary, knowing that every day doesn’t bring forth a riveting, raucous adventure. I’m lucky to have had some notable travels this month – to the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands during my wife’s winter break, passing through the historic (and culinarily famous) town of Ipoh, and of course, my own personal passage to India’s Kolkata, a remarkably dense city of unforgettable vividness and adrenaline-inducing energy.

But in between such excursions are reasonable – and necessary – breaks. January was an especially full month, which worked in my favor, as far as writing was concerned. Now that it has officially passed, I’m looking forward to not feeling a moral obligation to post daily, and hopefully, I’ll be exercising a keener, more judicious eye to scoop out the story when there doesn’t appear to be one. I’d hate having to resort to manufacturing some out of the blue…

Though, that isn’t a bad idea, entirely. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing short fiction, and maybe that’s a reasonable next project. Or compiling different lists. People like lists. Or launching an actual travel blog that only involves my jet-setting ways. Who knows?

Is it possible to be approaching the end with both eager in anticipation and cringing with dread? Does that sound, to you, a lot like graduating from a prestigious program, or for others, their wedding day (and others still, their wedding night?) I’m having trouble pinning down what exactly it is I’m feeling now that this whole ordeal is winding down.

Maybe it’s like a glass of whiskey…

(No, no I’ve made that analogy before, and this time, I wouldn’t have any idea where to go with it)

Perhaps it’s more like the relief you feel after stopping a wound from bleeding with a band aid. At that moment, you couldn’t be more grateful for a way to plug the thing from gushing out the life source inside you. That is until you you pull off the band aid a little too early and see the scab as it’s still forming. And yet, you’re just glad you aren’t staining your shirt anymore with your own blood.

Yes, a little like that.

When it’s all said and done (and soon, at that), I dread having to re-read all of these entries as if I’m being forced to flip through my middle school yearbook. But a lot like middle school, I’m just glad I survived it at all.

Granted

Day 27, 500 words, 31 days.

“One of the things that happens when you give yourself permission to start writing is that you start thinking like a writer. You start seeing everything as material.” – Anne Lamott

This morning I had a cup of coffee at the nearby Starbucks with a new friend, a writer, though he is many other things as well. In short, he practices a far healthier diet than I do, and he also has a lot to say about grace.

We probably could have talked for many hours. I think it takes a writer to ask another what it is that he likes to write, or what it is she enjoys reading for the conversation to sound natural and not like a blind date. So we exchanged resources – people who we’ve read recently, people who we should give a try, writing we consider interesting, and so forth.

It was refreshing, to say the least, to chum it up with someone about books, over a decent Americano.

I asked him who else he had known who writes, and he mentioned one other fellow, another parent at my wife’s school, who’s written several books. Unsurprisingly, they, too, are friends. That’s two other people who fancy themselves writerly and have even managed to publish their own work.

The third who I know – me – well, he’s working on it.

The quote I included above, is another inconspicuous gem of a line from Bird by Bird. I don’t consider it her most quotable of quotes, but it belongs in the second paragraph of the first page whose corner I actually leafed. I promised myself I’d never do that again and rely instead on free bookmarks I collect at coffee shops, but this one deserved a leafing. A permanent crease on the corner, the kind made when the intention is to return to it, over and over.

The first word that popped out to me is “permission”.

I had never considered it that way before – as if the venture of writing deserved a formal granting of passage. I just always thought some people did it because they couldn’t see themselves doing anything else.

To be fair, that’s actually an incredibly romantic idea, though perhaps a bit, limiting. It flies in the face of believing “one can do all things”, and yet, it is the very foundation of the mantra many hold, in which they believe they are pursuing what they are “destined to do”.

If it’s possible to subscribe to both ways of thinking – I would. But regardless of reasons behind why writers write, I’m fast approaching that part where I start to ask how to begin.

Frankly, I haven’t even fully sorted the “why” part. I was telling my friend today, and then, another friend later (and perhaps too many friends, with whom I am now divulging my little dream), that I just love stories, and I have a natural way of putting together words. Now, before that sounds absolutely pompous, let me just say, I didn’t mean it as a declaration of inherent greatness. I only mean to say, I’ve always found comfort in expressing myself this way, the written way, and that, I just can’t explain.

So for me, maybe it’s a little bit about doing one of the few things I feel I can do, and it’s also a little bit about doing something that I love.

I read something recently on that as well – and the writer gave a fairly nuanced summation of why people ought, not, to bash the idea of pursuing what one loves. The way I gathered it, as long as the lover tempered her expectations for her muse, she ought to pursue her muse with purest fervor and most dedicated resilience.

The mystery of this whole endeavor is the quality about it that feels like the closest thing I’ve ever felt to “calling” – as if it was one of the few options that actually made sense, amidst the myriad of options that make so little of it.

It’s not like I “chose” to like writing. I suppose I just always have.

It’s not like running, which I’m hoping to like, choosing to do, and feeling vehemently opposed to, most the time.

There aren’t many other things I enjoy doing, purely for it’s own sake. This is the case, so far, before it ever becomes something more than an everyday hobby. I pray the moment, if I’m ever so fortunate, that this ever resembled the makings of a career – I do hope to God, I enjoy it just as much then. Despite the many, many torn up drafts, bad reviews, and clever critics ready to rip me apart.

Despite all the good and bad that has yet to come, I hope only to give myself permission – that free, undeserved pass – just to continue.

On Grit

Day 24, 500 words, 31 days.

On my wife’s Facebook wall today, I came across an interesting article that unpacked the importance of a particular quality in becoming successful at what you do.

Grit.

The article couldn’t have been more timely. There are just several days left until this writing project officially comes to a close and while my restlessness makes for numerous ideas floating about in the mysterious space between my ears, it doesn’t always translate into actual material.

I mean, good, worthwhile, storytelling material.

Some days are like, today.

Nothing particularly eventful or interesting, just a day in which I let myself languish for the sake of “recuperating” after a draining week. I got my coffee at the usual spot, had a nice, long conversation with my friend, the owner, came home and putzed around for half the day, looked up airline flights I can’t afford, picked up my wife at school, and then we got groceries, fries, and some porridge. That about sums it up.

For several days, I had more than enough to work with – the rapid pace of traveling and unfortunate twists and turns that made our trip far more an adventure than it was projecting to be – that made for some decently compelling stuff. I could barely keep my eyes open to write, but I had more than enough to get down on paper before my body shut down for good.

Today, I’m struggling. I’ll admit it right now.

I suppose like any story, this project, too, has a beginning, middle and end. And within that trajectory there are rising things and falling things. There’s excitement, and then, there isn’t. There’s suspense, and then there’s the pending resolution. It’s, for moments, mostly interesting, and then, clearly, not at all.

Right now is one of those dips in the plot arc that the reader, you, might be trying to avoid before you sink into a quicksand called boredom.

It’s one of those days when the only thing that motivates me is what I said I’d do from the very beginning – to stay the course, and finish.

There are moments, long, arduous, baking-under-the-sun sort of moments, when the well runs empty, and the well was the only thing I dreamed about reaching so I could stop panting.

That article I read described “grit” as

“the ability to sustain interest and effort to complete long-term goals”

. I wasn’t completely satisfied with that description so I turned to the dictionary, and it gave me something a little more uplifting.

Grit, noun. Firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck.

My favorite of those is “pluck”. That’s the sort of word that wins you games in Scrabble. But the first definition was probably the most heartening.

I needed to hear that grit referred to character. It is the quality you could equate to tenacity. Mettle. Internal fortitude.

In my particular case, it’s precisely the sort of steadfastness I was praying for when I decided I’d start writing – everyday.

To be fair, there are far more things for which this quality of grit could serve an even greater use. Life and death sort of matters, like, well, life and death. Like war. Or championship matches. Or a most riveting game of Scrabble.

To consider how much grit I need to stay the course on a daily writing project that’s about to end might sound a tad overdramatic. And it is. But if I didn’t attribute to this cause so much importance, if I didn’t feel the weight of not finishing bear down on my shoulders like a biblical yoke – well, then I wouldn’t bother finishing at all. In fact, I’d have stopped a long time ago, long before things ever got mildly interesting.

I’d have stopped on a day like today, and I have many of them, believe me.

But I haven’t. I’m proud of that. I’m also foolish and naive and scared everything I’ve written here is the most self-absorbed rambling I’ve ever coughed up in my life.

But I’m glad I have a little bit of that grit. Just enough to last a few more days maybe. So long as I finish, I’ll know there’s more than just wandering thoughts stirring the little engine inside.

Shaky Legs

Day 17, 500 words, 31 days.

Tonight I noticed how slowly the “legs” run down the sides of my glass of whisky. The jazz is on, the eyes are getting droopy, and I’m waiting for my moment of inspiration to shake me back into a state of alertness and lucidity before the evening officially ends.

I’m running out of time.

It’s 10:55 now, and I had nearly forgotten to do my daily commitment. Waiting around isn’t going to do me much good, so I’ll just write.

That friend, I mentioned – Matt – taught me the thing about the legs and the whisky. He said it was the mark of a quality drink – if the legs ran down slowly. I know nothing more beyond this statement – I don’t possess the palate to describe what particular characteristics make for a good glass, and why.

I just know that I’ll likely sleep well.

I also know that, like this particular drink, good writing also needs “legs”.

Of course, it’s difficult not to get self-conscious as I am writing this – it’s hard to tell whether any of my writing actually constitutes being “good”. But the more that I read, and in turn, write, I’m beginning to get an idea of the elements of a story, or any piece of writing, really, that make it a worthwhile piece to grapple with.

The characters – fictional or not – have to want something, and as readers, we are on the outside, looking in on their journey towards getting (or not getting) that thing.

The plot should take us places, and sometimes, even places where the characters are going, before the characters know, themselves, where they are headed. There ought to be some sort of struggle, some kind of conflict or obstacle that looks to get in the way – and compelling characters invite us to root for them to succeed.

And there has to be something relatable to us – even if the backdrop of the story has little to do with anything we’re familiar with. We’ve got to be able to see, and experience, the themes within the story that are universal. The humanity of the story and characters have to be palpable, even in the midst of the most bizarre of premises. For those of you that enjoy watching zombie flicks – think, “The Walking Dead”.

I don’t mean to dispense writing advice. Surely you won’t get any from someone halfway into his drink and three-fourths of the way to sleep. I only mean to write what I’ve found to be compelling. I only hope to write that sort of a thing, as often as possible.

That’s what’s terrifying about this whole process – chances are, I won’t. Not regularly anyway. I’d be lucky if it happened even occasionally. And putting everything up publicly is like a bold and ludicrous way to invite judgment I’m not really ready to hear. I’ve convinced myself it’s worth doing anyway, like the person that decided to do an extra set of crunches even if their abdominals already feel like hot stone.

Call it brave, but I mostly think it’s a little foolish. Maybe necessary, but it sure feels foolish.

Funny how unimaginably vulnerable you can get when you have a blank page, good typing skills, a manageable amount of liquid courage, and an exorbitant amount of time no one is keeping.

Recently, I watched an episode of “The Parenthood” which featured a character that was a struggling musician going through a serious bout of writer’s block, feeling pressured by the recording studio and abandoned by his bandmates. He played that “misunderstood artist” all of us aspiring artists are all too, and embarrassingly, familiar with. The character himself felt more like a caricature, but the writers did give him the benefit of one line that went something like this:

“I don’t fear failing. I get that, it happens. I just don’t want to be mediocre. I want what I make to be great.”

I’ve taken some serious liberties paraphrasing the line, but, that’s how I remember it sounding.

It’s true, at this point, the fear isn’t the everyday failing – some days just aren’t going to be good days. In fact, today might be one of the bad ones. The bigger fear, for me, is that I’ll only stay mediocre. That I’ll never transcend to great. Even if the whole world never knew it, at least I would. I would want to know that I’ve crossed that line, even once.

That is, the line from good, to great. Frankly, I may just be beginning to venture from bad to good, or worse, staying average. And average, feels like the worst place to be.

And yet, what if being mediocre, for a long time, is precisely what one needs to be, before ever becoming great? What if it’s only in being stuck in a state of averageness does a person fully appreciate the gift of actually being good when it finally happens? What if, the fruit really does come out of the process of becoming, than actually having “become”? What’s the point of arriving when you have little clue where you’ve been all this time, in the first place?

What if I’ve written for too long tonight and I have no grasp of what I’m saying? What then, if you have absolutely no clue what on earth I’m talking about?

Well, I only have this to tell you: I’ve exceeded my 500 words, and the glass is neither half empty, or full – just finished. I’ve surrendered myself, once again, to the words. Maybe I’ve stumbled along this far, but at least I’ve still got my legs.

Toiling Away

Day 11, 500 words, 31 days.

I’m more than a third of the way in. The last couple days have been more challenging than the first few – a test of my resolve and commitment to this particular project.

On one hand, I’m just glad I haven’t let up.

On the other hand, there’s still such a long way to go. And by that, I don’t just mean this project. I mean the whole, writing thing. There’s still so much more to learn, to unlearn, to fail at and succeed with. For me, I keep telling myself that this has got to get past the 31 days.

But for now, the project is exactly the sort of short, intense mental workout I need to build the right sort of habits. Now if only my commitment in this area of my life could mirror that of my commitment to my health and physical well-being…

Jeff Goins gave us writers a nice little encouragement today. It was he, after all, that challenged us to take on this 500 words a day project, so it was only fitting that he told us:

“…you are enough. You are a writer, and what do writers do? They write. And all of you are doing just that. You’re showing up, availing yourself to the Muse, and doing your work.”

I’ve kept my expectations relatively simple this entire time I’ve been writing since the new year – that is, to just keep on writing. To press on as if my day couldn’t possibly end without having tried. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t feel complete, and a void would be created, to be filled, only by the weight of words.

I believe there will be a time for more meticulous editing. For the doing-over, and the taking out, and the revising again and again. There will be moments when I read over what I just wrote, and realize, “What on earth did I even mean by that?” And then, my face, buries itself in the meaty cushion of my palms, covering my shame.

But for now, my objective has been simple and by grace, I’ve stayed the course faithfully.

This feels a little like I’m toiling, though I’m sure farm workers and day laborers and doctors would have some choice things to say upon hearing such a thing. But I guess I don’t want to take for granted the essence, and necessity, of the work. The day-to-day grind of coming up with something to write – regardless of how interesting, or funny, or God-forbid, neither.

Early on in the project my wife innocently asked me, “So, what exactly are you going to write about, every day?”

I’m sure I didn’t have much of an answer. But I do remember feeling really liberated, that I didn’t quite know. In fact, I feel that way still.

Surprisingly, it’s even been liberating to write, publicly. Something about not caring that any particular piece reads perfectly or is actually, engaging, is helping me feel free to keep writing. Now, I don’t keep track of whoever’s keeping track, but I have a vague idea of which of my friends have remained loyal, perhaps even to a fault – should they instead be, actually, laboring away on their cubicles, or classrooms, or…dare I say, smartphones.

To you, I say, thanks, for putting up with me. But should you decide 31 days is just too long, I totally hear you – and no hard feelings.

The Need to Read

“Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about. It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.”

– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I’ve started reading Anne Lamott’s book about writing and the above quote was what spoke to me most deeply, so far. The book appears to read part-biographical and part-instructional, which might be why it’s resonating so strongly for me, so quickly.

I am surely in need of guidance, but more so, I am thirsty for relationship. And I don’t mean the kind to replace the wonderful one I have with my wife. I just mean  connection; I mean “friends” of sort, both real and imagined.

Lamott writes about having read Catcher in the Rye and feeling she “knew what it was like to have someone speak for me (her), to close a book with a sense of both triumph and relief, one lonely isolated social animal finally making contact.”

I’ve had that feeling after finishing several books before, but none more recently, or perhaps more profoundly than after Frederick Buechner’s, Now and Then.

Don’t worry, I’ll be sparing you a long synopsis – I only mean to illustrate my feeling. Like the moment after you’ve poured out your worst fears to numerous, ill-prepared listeners, only to, finally, have one person actually nod and say, “Yes, I’ve been there too.”

Buechner’s book is a memoir on vocation, which, if it isn’t obvious already, consumes  my mind more than managing my fantasy sports teams, and that says a lot. He was both writer and minister – and embraced his dual professions with grace and gratefulness – considering the privilege he had to spend his days teaching, writing, and collecting stories!

I can’t help but look at Buechner’s life, at Anne Lamott’s life, and wonder if there any patterns to their life trajectories that align with my own.

Going back to the quote I included in the beginning – as a child, I did feel a bit strange. I didn’t have any obvious quirks; I was never the object of other boys’ silly taunts or the recipient of undeserved beatings behind the playground. In fact, I was really well-liked. Respected, even. I hardly had any problems with anyone, and other kids looked to me to lead. I hadn’t ever asked for that sort of responsibility, but I do know that I always took it when given to me.

My greatest achievement before my teen years was probably getting elected to the position of “Class President”, twice. That is, without ever nominating myself. Not that I remember anyway. I do recall asking for the “Sports Moderator” position, which I was probably most excited about. My classmates, however, had other ambitions for me, and I took them graciously. The authority and power that comes with leading 40 other little school boys can be daunting, but I rose to the challenge, nonetheless.

All this to say, I had no problems making friends. Then. I had most everyone in my pocket. I spoke to anyone and everyone confidently, shared my thoughts on matters I knew little about. I was the kid who could have grown-up conversations with grown-ups, and leave them wondering what business I had hanging around them in the first place. I was a charming little kid, well-spoken, polite, and funny when the opportunity arose for humor. I played sports just well enough to get picked, and performed just well enough to succeed academically. I was good at many things, but never so great that I alienated anyone that was less talented.

What I wasn’t, however, was much of a reader. Anne Lamott devoured books. So did my brother. He and I probably played with our action figures more than anything, but when I wasn’t doing that, I’d be out kicking around a ball or re-enacting whatever it was I saw in basketball games with a wastebasket and rolled up paper. My brother was reading, or writing, or drawing.

Perhaps this stuck with me subconsciously, witnessing how differently he and I had spent our time. Maybe, I felt I needn’t engage that part of me that actually longed to be creative. If I did, it would be solely because I was little brother doing whatever big brother did, but nothing more.

I read whatever was available, but I never asked to read anything more. I never went searching for the next book through which I could live out my wild fantasies. The closest I would get to doing so was picking my brother’s old, Choose Your Own Adventure books and skipping to both page options to see which alternative I liked better. For me, even then, I relished in the safety and comfort of the real, protected world I lived in. There wasn’t this nagging desire for escape and adventure, begging for the freedom to run freely.  I was perfectly content, right where I was. I was a kid comfortable in his own skin, happy being happy and having friends.

But, there was always this one thing I couldn’t quite make sense of, and I still have a difficult time putting my finger on it even now, decades later.

It wasn’t so oppressive a thought or feeling that tortured my young soul into making sense of the world and my place in it. I was too young, too naive, and too content to really care much for it – that is, until I got older, and I left home.

It just wouldn’t leave me, this thing, and neither would I let it. Like a stuffed animal I had obviously outgrown yet took to my college dorm anyway. Except this stuffed animal was really turning into a wild, horned, beast of a thing waiting for it’s moment to run free, and hunt, and reproduce without inhibition.

Yes, something like that…

Maybe I’m getting lost in my own illustration here, but simply put, something in me no longer wants to be tamed.

See, that thing Anne Lamott was talking about – that struggle to make sense of the world – I’ve had that in me since the very beginning. It’s one of the first things I recall about being a kid, having this internal wrestling I couldn’t quite communicate to anyone. How could I, after all? What words did I have then to make sense of something I can barely still describe now?

But whatever it is, it is getting restless. I feel it every time I read something beautiful or heartbreaking, some nugget of truth that I wish I had thought of first, some story that captures the solitary struggle of making sense of one’s self and one’s place in the order of things. My heart beats harder, like it is knocking on the cage of my chest to come out and see the world in all it’s glory and ugliness.

Perhaps, it is here that I can best employ some double-negatives

I can’t, not know. I can’t, not try.

And I won’t wake up these days without wanting to read something, or write anything, just to figure it all out.

As a child I hardly remember reading, but now I can’t stop collecting books. It took long enough to realize that books for me, are the key to a deeper sense of awareness and not just knowledge. They are not merely the answers to whatever questions arise in my head, but they are the food that nourishes my heart.

Books are starting to save my life from the lies I’ve been telling myself for the longest time. Reading writers like Henri Nouwen, Buechner, and Lamott, and a  long list of others are fueling that beautiful, beast inside me that longs for wisdom, for freedom, and most of all, for peace.

So a call to other lovers of books and of words…do send stories my way. I’m hungry, and need to be fed.

Remembering “Cheez Balls”

It isn’t really my story to tell, but I’m sharing it anyway, minus the details…

My dad likes to recall an incident between my older brother and our “Lola”, my Dad’s mom. It had to do with a can of Planters Cheez Balls.

A quick note on Cheez Balls. As a kid, this may have easily been the greatest cheesy snack ever delivered in can form. The competition may have been slim, but the gap between first and whatever second was, was staggering. Cheez Balls may have introduced me to the concept of post-snack “finger-licking”. Couldn’t afford to waste the artificial cheese residue on my hands. 

Anyway, my Lola, who had been living in the U.S., came back ever so often and always brought home a Balikbayan box-full (“balikbayan” quite literally meaning “returning to country”) of goodies. The amount of chips and chocolate in these boxes was enough to feed an entire village of hungry children, and probably their parents. But she doted on us quite a bit as any loving grandmother would, and her particular choice of displaying her affection happened to revolve around food. Lots of it.

If I remember the story correctly, it goes a little something like this:

Lola gives my brother this can of Planters Cheez Balls. My brother is, rightfully, ecstatic, and proceeds to rip open the can and stuff his face with the puffy goodness. Our Lola, herself a bonafide snacker, asks if she could have some of the Cheez Balls that she had given to him.

As he would soon regret, he decides not to let her have any. In his mind, there is simply no sharing of his Cheez Balls. But my Dad catches on quickly on his little defiant act, and he’s ticked.

Immediately Dad scolds my brother for his display of Cheez Balls hoarding and forces him to stand in the corner and contemplate his actions. Embarrassed and defeated, my brother goes off to the corner and cries. Eventually, he falls asleep.

It gets fuzzy afterward. The version I remember is that my Lola eventually feels terrible about the whole incident and pleads with my Dad to release him from his “punishment”. My Dad relents at first but eventually wakes my brother up to explain to him why he was so disappointed.

The moral is pretty clear to me now, given that I’m an adult and I don’t mind sharing – though it was probably apparent for my brother even way back then, after the mild humiliation.

Recently, this story struck a different chord in me, though, and this time, it had little to do with the value of sharing.

Or rather, it did, but not in the way I would’ve expected.

In the past few weeks I’ve been wrestling with a bit of a revelation – to me, anyway. It’s still strange writing about it because, acknowledging it brings about a tangled web of emotions ranging from sheer excitement to downright anxiety to genuine fear, to a smidgen of courage, and maybe, hopefulness.

Long story short, though perhaps deserving of another story entirely – I’ve confessed to my wife, to myself, and to a a handful of friends around me,  along with the occasional moment in passing with a stranger…

…that I’d like to write, for a living.

But I won’t get into that whole process right now because a) I’m still processing it and b) I don’t want to forget about my point about Cheez Balls.

The thing about the Cheez Balls story that adds to the humor of it, besides the image of a chubby little kid standing in the corner with cheese residue on his fingers and tears quickly drying on his cheeks, is that my brother somehow had the gall to refuse to share it with my Lola who gave it to him. In his mind, the moment the transfer took place gave him license to claim the can of Cheez Balls entirely to himself – it was no longer to be shared.

And yet, there my Lola was, selfless to a fault, just asking for a little bit, experiencing a harsh sort of denial from her grandson.

I believe that for her, it wasn’t really about the Cheez Balls. (OK, maybe it was, a little bit)

It was about sharing in the experience (the wonderful experience) with my brother – to take part in the joy that is his pure delight for this rare, caloric, American snack. She just wanted that moment with him – taking turns stuffing their hands into the little can and bringing them out with a fistful of Cheez Balls.

See, my revelation is the writing. It’s currently my “Cheez Balls”, if you will. I can’t stop thinking about “story” and plot, and the attributes of a compelling character, and the integrity with which we ought to be sharing about our lives, and our selves.

And yet, I’m having a hard time sharing it – this dream and desire to write, with the very Being I believe to be completely responsible for me to dream freely in the first place.

If I’m to be completely truthful, I want to confess that I haven’t earned anything. I have nothing to show for this little dream that I have other than the existence of a handful of blogs I’ve started and filled sporadically. There’s no knowing how far this whole dream is going to go. I just know that I’ve captured it, and I’m beginning to tend to it, for once. In this strange season of life that I’m in, I’m actually affording myself that permission (and to be more honest still, with my wife’s incredible support) And I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t feel that perhaps, this dream didn’t quite come out of the blue, but rather, that it was given.

To me. By Him.

By a God who I believe, actually desires good for His people. Regardless of whether His people – us – ever acknowledge Him and what He’s given.

I’m clutching onto this dream as if it were only mine to enjoy. But what about the giver? Can He not share in my joy? Will He not stand by me in the inevitable pain of failure that comes with it? Would He not want to see me thrive, and grow, and break, and cry, and get up again, knowing I still have a dream to live out to the fullest?

The Cheez Balls story wasn’t my own actual memory, but I sure wish that it was.

If it were, perhaps, I’d have learned how to really share.

Surge

I couldn’t sleep.

My heart was racing inexplicably, and it was keeping me awake.

I had just finished writing my toast for a wedding I’m attending in two days. A wedding in which I, as the best-man, am the toast-giver.

It took quite some time to break through the writer’s block but as I lay in bed, mulling over some ideas I had worked out earlier, words and phrases started to form into ideas. Ideas that needed sentences to make sense, and needed the permanence of a written platform in order for the ideas, the mini-stories floating in my head, to not fly away.

So I got up, and wrote. I finished the toast in, well, I lost track of time, so I actually don’t know how long it took. But it is finished, and I am pleased with it. It isn’t the greatest piece, but somehow it feels like the best piece I’ve written in a while, and I’m about to read it to hundreds of people I don’t know.

Regardless of how good it actually it is, it doesn’t matter. That rush, that overcoming feeling, surged from some unidentifiable place and brought me to my laptop and compelled me to start typing while my hands were hot with a writing fury.

And then I went to bed. I laid my piece to rest, and rested, myself.

Or so I thought. But the surge came again, and here I am, typing away piece number two. A piece that very few will read, if any, at all. And for that very reason I have the boldness to say the following statement: I am a writer.

Yes, I’ve spelled it out, and whispered it to myself a few times, just under my breath as I lay still but restless underneath my covers.

I am a writer.

There it is again. It is a confident thing, to say. This is all daring and fearless, and so, new, to me. But at this moment, at 2:30 in the morning, it somehow makes sense. This isn’t delirium manifesting itself through a borderline gibberish, stream-of-consciousness type blog entry.

It’s something else. It’s the kind of frightening truth that makes itself known to you in the most unexpected of times, because that’s how truth likes to sneak up on us sometimes, in the middle of the night when the lies are a tad muted, and the voices are few. The voice is just my own, or something in me, and it told me to get up and write.

It doesn’t matter how early and late it is. Just write. And when you write, make sure to the write the following words: I am a writer.

Declare it, without fear. Without worry or concern. It is true.

No one is unabashedly claiming this piece to be Pulitzer-prize winning in quality. Certainly not me. Since when have I exuded that kind of confidence in what I write, anyway?

But still, I’m up in the middle of the night, sharing as though I have some sort of audience, needing to divulge this quiet truth that creeped its way into the crevices of my soul that I, in fact, ought to write.

I’m careful to start believing that this ought to be my profession all of a sudden. Writing, that is. How many brilliant writers does the world never discover? I will guess plenty. The many whose names will never be published, but whose journal pages are rife with heartbreaking, honest, human stories, rich and full.

It isn’t really about making the choice to live a writer’s life. That life is being lived by a select and privileged few. And God bless them. What an honor, to be the world’s known storytellers, to have an audience, a following, a name.

I am a writer because I love to write.

And if I love to write, then I ought to write more often. I can’t quite pinpoint what’s held me back before, but I know this much, I need not hold back any longer. What for?

It is less about proving something, as much as it is about learning to embrace my fullest, deepest self. And if I think as though I write, and talk as though I write, and stay up in the middle of the night on an odd evening, awake because of an urge to write…

Then, I must write.

So, here’s to a scary beginning, and to a hopefulness that I’ll only get better.

Stay with me, whatever you are. Please, stay.