Sunday, September 15, 2002

Dateline: Two Dogs Internet Café in San Luis Obispo

The writers’ conference is over, and I’ve paused on my way home to eat breakfast and log on to the Internet. I have a couple of days’ worth of e-mail to deal with, and I really wanted to post here.

Yes, I did bring my laptop on this trip. But I forgot the power cord—a classically Freudian self-destructive move that shows just how scared I’ve been of writing. I’m not letting that stop me, though. There’s always another way.

I also didn’t bring printouts of any work, but that was a deliberate decision. I didn’t attend the writers’ conference to get a contract, find a new agent, or validate myself through praise and recognition. In some ways I was traveling incognito—not talking about my work or reading it aloud, not showing off my knowledge or trying to gain acknowledgment as a colleague from the presenters. Yes, I did that, deplorable as it is, last time I went to a writers’ conference as an attendee—that was the 1993 RWA convention in beautiful subaqueous St. Louis, where the Gateway Arch was up to its knees in Mississippi, and I bought a small sandbag as a souvenir.

I’m waffling. I could go off here into the tragicomic story of how I always encounter natural disasters when I travel. It’s amusing, and it’s well off the topic. But not today—I want to face this, dammit.

I went to the writers’ conference to remember who I am. To be among people who value what matters to me: the art and craft of writing. (Which sounds redundant, but isn’t.) And to start caring enough again to overcome the fear that’s kept me frozen these long years.

I have a stable home now. I have a computer to write on. I have a supportive partner. I don’t have time, but I can make that—I have to make it somehow. Even an hour a day would make a difference. I just need to build the momentum to carry me into writing every single day.

For years I had what every writer dreams of: hours alone every day, hours of unspoiled time in which to devote myself to the work. Afterwards I could do errands, cook, read, sleep, handle Billy. Writing was my fulltime job. Of course, I paid a price for it, and when the price got too high, I left that marriage and that life. I’ve posted about that already, though, and there’s no point in rehashing the devil’s bargain. I chose my life above my writing, which sounds idiotic; unless I’m alive, I can’t possibly write. And of course it was more complicated than that. But the point is. The point is.

I haven’t written a book in five years—well, five years come November. And I haven’t finished a book of my own in far longer. I‘ve worked on other people’s projects. I’ve been writing ad copy, marketing e-mails, persuasive junk mail. It pays the rent. It gives me a sense of achievement, and at least I’ve been able to write copy for products I believe in. But I miss my own work.

And every tiny chance element of the Cuesta College Writers’ Conference seemed designed to remind me that life is short, and I’d better write today, because tomorrow I might not be breathing.

In his welcome speech, David Congalton, the conference co-director, apologized to returning participants for the lack of guitar music, which had been a tradition. The guitar player dropped dead in March. Heart attack. He was 49. There was an empty chair with his picture propped against the back as a memorial.

And there was more. I don’t have time now to record every detail, but the most touching moment of the conference for me came when Susan Vreeland mentioned the circumstances of her finishing the manuscript of Girl in Hyacinth Blue. She was in the hospital with lymphoma; she’d had a bone-marrow transplant, and it wasn’t clear if she would survive. But she finished the book. She wanted to make sure her writers’ group knew that she had been happy in those last months of her life.

The Lump has been a distraction for me. Not anymore. Now it’s a spur. I am 43. I could have another 60 years, or I could die on the way home. I don’t want to waste the time I have left. I don’t have unbroken days to write any longer. But I can find an hour, two hours. I can do this. I have to.

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