At 25, I started writing a book. Thailand lured me in one direction; the rave scene pulled me in another. My four mentors were kind and gentle, willing to read my fragments, my ramblings, my shit. At the core, I knew what I needed to write about: the dance underground; the music that had so moved me and my friends; the dancing as a tribe; the carnal, soulful quality of sound made by machines; and the recollection of haze and excess, of enlightenment and repulsion. Of being part of an epic moment.
I lived a quarter of a lifetime, and I thought I knew everything.
Given my background in journalism and screenwriting, and being undisciplined, I had a tough time balancing and controlling two voices: my 17-year-old self, discovering a world for the first time; and my omniscient “older” self, a 27-year-old narrator reflecting on and dissecting what it all meant.
The manuscript was called Ten Years in a Trance.
Do the math.
* * *
I once said my collection of unfinished pieces is my greatest accomplishment so far. And another impressive list? My blog post queue: ideas that have that eeked through the brainstorming process and now live in limbo as bullet points, waiting patiently like puppies behind a pane of glass. Pick me! I’m ready to go home with you! Mold me! Give me life!
Examples in the queue:
- Why Writing a Memoir Before 30 Was a Terrible Idea
- Musings on “The Constant” (and Why I Named My iMac Desmond)
- Updated Rules for Mogwai in the Digital Age*
- Will Homeownership Kill my Nomadic Spirit?
- Music and Memory: Notes on Serotonin Release, 10 Years Later
- Exit Planet Dust: The Trip, Materialized Through Sound
- Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part III (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Edition)
- Breakups and the LOST Finale: A Comparison*
- Why Wanderlust Has Not Led Me to the Philippines
- Reflections on Winning the 2010 World Series**
- The Anatomy of a Techno Mix (with Special Attention to Tracks 1, 2, 4, and the Next-to-Final and Final Tracks)***
- The Raver as Hunter-Gatherer; The Crew as the Tribe; The Warehouse as the Wild***
- The Speaker as Monolith***
- Entering the War Zone: The Drum & Bass Dance Floor***
*These ideas are fresh out of the oven: one born on Twitter last week, and the other in an email chain from yesterday. I do appreciate how ideas emerge from randomness.
** I love baseball but fear I may never tackle this. (My only other attempt on writing about baseball—Bonds’ metaphorical asterisk—sucked balls.) Can I write a piece on the Giants 2010 playoffs, relying largely on emotion?
***I’ve mused on these topics in juvenile form, with authority I did not have. The excerpts linked to were in chapters removed from my book.
Some ideas joined the queue in graduate school. The desperate, lonely ones have lingered since freshman year in college, nearly 15 years ago. Some ideas are not yet ripe: They simmer. They change shape. Others become irrelevant and no longer mean anything.
Sometimes, not writing isn’t about laziness. Or lack of inspiration. Most of the time, I am not ready.
* * *
An excerpt of an evaluation from a mentor—an inspiring woman—in spring 2006:
She need not wait. . . . She has an opportunity that is a window that will soon close, because she will grow older, she will become cynical and doubt her certainties, and before she does, her skills can be brought to bear upon understanding that in-between-ness we all seek as writers, or I hope we do, where you can make a universe available by sympathy, and having been in its stomach, you can also see—and yes, analyze—its place in the larger picture—of a century, a culture.
She can both translate the magic, AND sympathetically, decently engage its limitations, can in short see her historical moment’s ideology for all that it contributes, and all that it lacks. And I do mean it when I say this is a time-limited thing. She has to write the rest of this now—but it’s a long now, by which I mean within the next five years of her writing life.
I received this at the midpoint of my MFA program, in my most prolific period of writing ever. The source of the surge? This compassionate, curious professor—a noted essayist and poet—combined with a growing invincibility as a writer. A confidence grew from within. And then there was a therapeutic release.
The second half of my MFA experience pushed me in a direction that made me uncomfortable. Upon entering my final semester, I had over 400 pages of material: Some of it tight and focused, but most of it raw, rambling, but honest. And some of it fragments of memoir, but most of it a mix of literary journalism and reportage. In the final stretch, I was urged to kill the omniscient voice, almost entirely—to ditch the dissection of the culture I was hoping to understand, and to focus instead on developing the 17-year-old narrator: to follow her descent into a (literally) dark underground, and to use her to document moments that had floated vividly in my memory.
And I trusted my mentor and all the writers around me; I vomited hundreds and hundreds of new pages: scenes I didn’t want to recreate, nor did I think were important. But I wrote, hoping sequences would add up, wishing for a truth to emerge, praying I could latch on to something concrete, a glorious AHA! to validate not only my MFA experience, but my past.
Today, I cannot read the manuscript. I cringe when I (try to) read it with editorial eyes: its embarrassingly linear narrative, the succession of one-note moments eliciting little sympathy, the overarching emptiness.
It sits in a drawer, collecting dust.
But is collecting dust so bad? The more dust that settles, the more perspective I gain. In the year after my program, I resented the entire experience: a waste of time and money, exclusion from the book proposal and contract race. And the main thing: the meaning of the world I explored was more elusive than when I began. But now, that window my mentor spoke of has indeed closed. And I no longer identify with the narrator in those pages. I used to know her: Her acceptance. Her lack of judgment. Her innocence. I think of her fondly, but she is gone.
Yet before the window closed, I captured that moment—a long moment of 10 years—independent of a conclusion. Observations made with wide eyes; recordings of sensations I can no longer hear, smell, and touch; a journal of our collective recklessness.
* * *
She has to write the rest of this now—but it’s a long now.
I get it. And I’m beginning to understand why my final mentor pushed me to work on the scenes I didn’t want to revisit.
Why do I have this blog queue? I wait for the right moment. Some stories become rich with age, like wine. But I also realize some moments must be recorded, perhaps in haste, no matter how raw, unripe, and slippery they are.
It may be another 5 or 30 years until they’re mature, but the posts in my queue—and that larger story I had attempted—continue to simmer. A favorite part of the writing process is figuring out when they’re ready.
And if some of them never are? That’s okay. A beauty in that, certainly.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Blogger at Writing Through the Fog. Story Wrangler at Automattic.