Writer’s Log, February 1: Chains and Choices

My favorite Dickens work has always been A Christmas Carol. I fell in love with it long before I read any of the novels, when Walter C. Scott appeared on my parents’ black and white TV in all his scruffy, miserable glory. Despite the fact that I had been banned from anything scarier than Wonder Woman because I spooked so easily, and barring the fact that I was being raised in a conservative Jewish household, everything about the story spoke to me: the raw pain, the stubborn adherence to said pain, the vocal and vehement spirits, the terror, the cruelty, the bittersweet joys, the final reckoning and hope. For a kid growing up in the 80s, when it seemed like everyone was bottled up and hairsprayed and armored in neon, this kind of balls-to-the-wall treatment of everyday, fundamental suffering was like tonic.

And despite the fact that it’s been rinsed and repeated ad infinitum, the story never fails to enchant me. I think that’s because we still live in a world where so many of us would rather drag heavy chains of regret behind us than release the hold we have on whatever stubborn patterns we’ve developed over a lifetime. The capacity old woes have to cripple us can really not be understated, and their insidious nature cannot be underestimated.

I still get a thrill, too, when I remember that all I need to do to cast off any number of rusty, weighty chains is to simply release my grip. Even if I can only manage to do so for a moment, the thrill is electrifying, probably because it’s so easy to get unknowingly mired in my own preciously cultivated shit. I’m in particular danger of this during the long, post-holiday winter, when I haven’t yet found my way back to a regular writing schedule and my creativity seems quite content to snooze until spring. It’s so tempting to tell myself terrible stories about what I haven’t done, about what I’ve missed, about the plans I made and failed to meet. I can get my knickers in such a twist that it becomes virtually impossible to sit down with myself in a quiet room and get back to work.

But then I remember that that’s really all I have to do. I don’t actually have to listen to those stories, no matter how persuasive I’ve found them in the past. I just need to loosen my grip on the chains long enough to start writing. And when I remember to do this, the writing comes back unbidden, like those first slips of green emerging from the permafrost of an urban winter. What we don’t know is always there to surprise us, no matter how well we’ve convinced ourselves we’re past surprising. Spring always comes, no matter how cold the winter has been.

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, Tiger in a Snowstorm

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