On writing: the space where words appear

Like a tracker in the woods, a writer scouts out her next story in the solitude of a quiet home.


What a lovely surprise to finally discover how unlonely being alone can be.
– Ellen Burstyn

My 12-year-old friend, the dog walker, doesn't understand. Every night he finds me in my kitchen – not cooking, but writing. He worries that I'm lonely, and possibly not eating. He confides this to his mom, who is also my friend. They are my neighbors, not close, as in across the street, but close enough that I have hired Chris, my 12-year-old friend, to walk my two dogs every night. Well, most nights. Well, when Chris remembers.

Chris's mom tells me she has tried to explain to her son that I am a writer and that writers are lonely by nature, by choice. It's a different kind of solitude: "Don't think of her as sad," she tells him.

"But the house is so big," he says, "and she's always there by herself."

"Not by herself," his mother corrects him. "The dogs are there, and her husband comes home, later at night."

"But sometimes I walk the dogs for her after 8 and he's still not back," Chris says. Chris's dad works closer to home and has dinner with his family every night. It's a raggle-taggle dinner in a topsy-turvy house – four kids, two working parents, one large, lumbering dog – but this is Chris's reality, his control sample. I am at best his variable. More likely I'm his aberration.

Chris's house is very noisy and messy. His life is intertwined with those of his siblings and his parents. My house is calm and quiet. My children are at college. I have done my fair share of running around, walking the dogs, skipping and tripping, and moving. Now what I want is stillness and the chance to finish and then to begin what I started so many decades ago.

Chris likes the job of walking my dogs. It pays well and he's fond of animals; I also think he likes having an excuse to be out after dark. Chris is a bit of a loner like me. Maybe that's why he's worried. He thinks he will end up in a kitchen one day, hunched over a laptop instead of a stove. Waiting.

I want to explain that it's not what it seems. That, yes, I'm waiting, but not for a dog walker to do his job; or for a four-legged friend or two to wag themselves into the kitchen, looking for a treat or a pat on the head; not for a phone to ring; not for a husband to come home. All of those things are good and will happen and that's fine, but it's not what I'm waiting for. I am waiting for the next word, the next sentence to form, the next image to take hold. I am a tracker in the woods. I am stalking the next story. I can hear it off in the distance. But it's too soon to follow. I must listen and wait.

I like writing in the kitchen because, after all, eventually I do have to eat. And so does my husband. He's counting on me. I can keep an eye on whatever is cooking. If I get too deep in my story, the smell of burning dinner will bring me back to the surface. Also, the light is good in the kitchen. It keeps me from squinting. And the kettle is there, promising/delivering an infinite number of cups of tea. The kettle gives me a reason to move; it keeps me from turning into stone. I get up and make a cup of tea, then go back to my laptop. Wait. Wait. I get up and make a cup of tea then go back to my laptop. Sometimes while I'm away from my desk, the story gets written. Then when I get back, tea in hand, I understand. I write it all down.

I don't think Chris wants to be a writer, so maybe there's no reason to explain this to him – other than to put his mind at ease. Chris wants to be a minister. I'm his first pastoral visit. He senses a sadness of the soul when he sees me. I tell him in my mind not to worry. It's only a mild case of writer's block. Another cup of tea will most likely do the trick. It's not like it was in years gone past, when I had to wait until the children were asleep or at school before I could write. I chose to wait back then. Now I don't have to make that choice. Now the only question is, what am I waiting for?

The other night, Chris said to me, "This house is really too big for you, yes? Maybe you'll move into a smaller place? Maybe you'll move to the city."

"No," I said, "I don't think so." I live in the infinite space in my head. The size of the house doesn't matter. I used to think it did, that downsizing was good. Heck, it is good. But like everything else, including this conversation, it takes time away from writing. And I've had enough of that.

Chris no longer thinks that I'm lonely. Now he just thinks that I'm rude. I've started to leave his money by the door so he doesn't have to talk to me. I'm probably scaring him away, but he's saving for an iPhone, so I don't think he'll quit, not just yet. I need to remember that he is my friend, that I like him and his pastorly concern for my well-being.

Plus I don't want to have to start walking the dogs again in the evening. I enjoy taking them out in the morning, but at night it just means less time to write. One more distraction, one more obstacle on my course. So for Chris's sake, for the dogs' sake, oh, for heaven's sake, I'll be nice.

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