I had a lot of work to do this week. A deadline loomed beyond the sunny land of day like a wheel of sharks’ teeth waiting at the end of a seven day drift on a paper raft down a worried river of caffeine. I could heap even more metaphors on that bonfire of words and the structure of my stress would still hold its shape underneath.
I am working toward an MFA. Our work is fashioned into cyclical slams, program-wide due dates that, no matter how dedicated I am, just don’t agree with my nature. But, even when I’m not delighted with the task in front of me, fear appears to be a muscled motivator, because as this due-date-ending-week got closer to certain doom, questions of academic insecurity and intellectual puzzle shivered into something like clarity. Or, at least, I found a clear way to approximate the quality of work I expect myself to produce.
Through it all, my sweet, silly dog, whose heart is at any given moment on the verge of bursting for joy at the sight of me, watched me with a face full of faith and her favorite toy at the ready just in case I looked up from the keyboard with anything like an inviting expression.
Eight and a half years ago I was driving to the school where I worked, teaching for a living but living through it by thinking constantly about escape from the classroom just as often as I had as a school-trapped child. I turned off the busy, main road to ride the last mile through a residential labyrinth. That way was safer, slower, and I was able to talk myself down inside, talk myself into one more day of bells and administrators and paperwork.
Just turning a corner, coming into the slant of morning sun that a moment later would have whited-out my windshield, I spotted a little, animated dot on the sidewalk ahead of me, moving. It jotted into the street as I slowed. Cat? Puppy! And it bounded in a coal-black streak straight under the front wheels of my car as I braked into the floorboards.
I had slowed down as soon as I’d seen it. I wasn’t going fast. But it wouldn’t take so much as a nudge to crush a tiny little thing like that. I sat there behind the steering wheel, my heart riding the vomit-elevator, feet-to-throat-to-feet-to-throat. Slowly I swung my door open. I eased out of the car, let myself down onto knees that seemed too weak to hold do more than kneel. Just as I was about to bend down and take the necessary, dark look under my wheels, out from under the shadow of tired treads burst a waggling, slobbering, panting puppy. She was just a baby. Milkspine teeth gnawed on my fingers and wrists as I tried to get hold of her.
Fitting neatly in one palm, she weighed nothing. Her sides were rounded, bloated, not with food. She was filthy, wrinkly, and I was in love before I stood all the way up. Ill-fated, I thought, because we worked too much to have a dog, rented and couldn’t risk having a dog damage anything, didn’t have enough money to feed a dog.
No one claimed her in response to ads and calls and signs. I named her Frida. My husband bought her a collar with tiny little hula dancers on it.
A few weeks went by and, growing more and more worried about the consequences of having a dog when we clearly should not, we found someone to take her off our hands, but at the last minute she said, “And she’s so cute, if it doesn’t work out, I can just take her to the Humane Society and I’m sure she’d find a home.”
That night, Frida slept on our bed and I said, “My girl.”
Funny thing, after being assured that we were unable to have children, three months after settling down to spoil our mutt-mixed babydog, we discovered we were going to have a baby, a for real, of our own, baby-baby. I have always credited Frida with opening some door in the universe through which our child traveled to find us.
Now here she was, every day of this last week, waiting on the couch just behind my turned back—50 lbs. of Frida, perfectly aware that I was not in a good mood, that I had for days rejected her attempts to play, had taken meals at the computer, greeted the computer first every morning, and outlasted everyone else in the household in the evening, still at the computer. Yet, she was ready to turn the corner with me, her elm-switch tail lashing the air, grinning, bouncing, kiss crazy, satisfied with the perfection of life beginning at the moment that the balance of my visage changed.
When I paint, I can plainly see if what I have done fails. I know when an image isn’t right, because it shows, and I know the line of my ability’s limit, because I’ve smacked into it with my brush. It hurts, but, thankfully, it can be pushed out a bit further and a bit further with patience and practice. With writing, there is often no knowing how much further I have to go to get the impression I so want. Or if I have it in me. Or if the idea I’m working so feverishly toward has any significance outside of itself.
Experienced writers claim to know. I’m not so sure that objectivity and words work together, ever—or, at least, not with certainty. I just finished a book by a respected literary voice, a known work, that whistled its way past the graveyard, into status, riding on its writer’s name. The book itself is so much chalk dust, clothed in accolades earned by previous work. What did this important writer imagine he’d written? Something perfect, perfectly told. Maybe his impression of it and its success are plenty, and I am splitting perfectionism down to the follicle.
I debate this while I write, trying to find the right way to make denim overalls read with texture and color and that little jingling sound of brass buttons, shoulder hooks. Frida yawns loudly behind me. She doesn’t hear anything but the monotony of clacking keys. I smile at her, she becomes instantly thrilled.
Ignoring her enthusiasm, I go back to splitting thoughts. I know I’m not perfect. I just don’t want to be perfectly off. I expect the words I put down to get up off the page and tell the stories, sensibly, vividly. Right now I am working on a story about my mother, Helen. After writing a bit about her for the blog, I have decided that, by popular insistence, she is a good subject for serious exploration.
This is a big job, since she was real and there are certain feelings that have to be presented in fullness, or glossed over in haste. I have to get her gruesome, psychotic, hilarious stories right, or they will be awful. Structure, timing, voice, content, level of appeal, narrator position, it all has to be perfect. It has to say the right things.
Frida has gone back to sleep. Her breathing tells me she’s chasing birds in a dream. The birds take a bad turn. She whimpers.
I get up from my writing, pet her carefully, trying to end the nightmare without waking her entirely. This is her creative state. I do not want to interrupt it.
I feel dreamy, sitting there beside her. Her alpha waves over-wash the anxious clock.
Writing, even without the deadline, is nervy work. There is an internal hue to the elements from which a story, a poem, a creative essay are all comprised that can delude the writer, creating mirages of wonder. A writer drinks the water they’ve written into the desert at her or his own peril. Every line is a potentially poisoned well of expressive imperfections. Or maybe you’ve written something that will save you, something that will comfort thirst in a land of dry air. Or maybe you’ve written a grocery list in the sand and called it water.
I stare at the computer from across the room; sitting by my dog, her head on my lap, six hours to go before the deadline I’d set for myself. 24 hours before the actual deadline. Time sails down a jittery river without me.