THE REAL REASON I BECAME A WRITER

Or, what other job lets you take naps and call it work? June 2000

People often ask me if it’s hard to be a writer. How, they ask, do I think up all those stories and characters? Where do I get all the ideas? How do I make myself sit down and write all those words? (Neither of my boys has ever complained about the length of a term paper–they wouldn’t dare!)

I never quite know how to answer. Is it easy? Well, no. The truth is, it can be very hard some days. Some days, I’ll do anything to get out of it, and I do mean anything. I have been known to take all the food and dishes from the kitchen cupboards and repaper the shelves to get out of writing for a day. I once cleaned the storage area where my husband keeps his lumber and tools, braving spiders and mildew and God-only-knows to get out of work.

But the truth is, I’m quite…um…languorous by nature. My grandmother, exasperated by yet another ploy I’d found to get out of cleaning the baseboards or doing the dishes, often called it lazy. I’m sticking with languorous. Contemplative, maybe. (Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket!).

Whatever the label, I have the personality best suited for long, light-struck afternoons spent on porches with comfortable wicker furniture watching nectar-heavy bees move from one glorious stand of flowers to the next. I admire them, those bees, especially bumble bees, so black and furry, and I think about them a lot as they trundle from a trumpet of blue penstemon to a stand of sage. They’re so focused, those bees, so intent on the job at hand, while I simply am not. I’m watching them in the slow, deep heat of a desert summer afternoon, wondering about the flavor of honey that comes from penstemon and sage. I’m wondering if that fat black and white body would feel as furry as it looks, and if I have the courage to stroke it to find out.

I’m sitting, as I often do, on my front porch. It’s June and it’s hot. I’m wearing a little Indian cotton sundress and pretty much nothing else-no make-up, no shoes, and only enough underneath to keep the neighborhood teenagers from tsking. My hair, which has grown long again without me noticing, is caught in a butterfly clip that keeps the weight off my neck. I notice, distractedly, that I’m getting quite tan. There are stripes on my feet from my walking sandals.

I think, lazily, of getting up to pull some of the grass that’s going to seed in the rose garden, but when I actually rouse myself to go over there, I notice how thick the scent of the roses are, and I pause to put my face in them, admiring the way this particular rose is photosensitive. I take a moment to consider how the petals could possibly react to light, what scientific fact lies behind this miraculous process of yellow petals turning deep pink as the sun moves over them. There is a sharp, definite shadow on one petal, made by the shadow of another, just like a shape put over a piece of photographic paper. I think of the effect of that same sun on my skin, right now, turning my skin darker as I stand there and marvel at the wonder of such sophisticated bioengineering. The flower intrigues me, and I bend to smell it, wondering how roses ended up having such distinctly different scents.

I manage to pull a few stands of invasive grass, but my cat has discovered that I’m outside and there is nothing this adorable creature likes better than to be outside, with a human, especially a human who is willing to pull that long strand of grass seed for him to chase. I stand there, getting hotter by the second in the blaze of the sun turning my skin browner, and admire his alert yellow eyes peeking at me through the rose bush. I love how soft he looks and reach out to put my fingers on the spot where his black fur turned white in a stripe across the back of his head when he was sick recently. Very sick. He loves it and turns his head into my palm and I think about why that happens, that a trauma can turn a strip of hair totally white.

And I remember, rubbing his sweet little head, how terrified I was when he fell so sick, so suddenly, a young cat who brought light and joy and silliness into my world. They never did discover what made him sick, and after an absolutely agonizing week of feeding him egg yolks mixed with olive oil and water, he just as suddenly got well. I think about how much I love him, how much pleasure he brings with him into every single day, and rub his tummy and pull the grass and thank the heavens for letting him be okay.

The sun makes me thirsty and I go inside to get a glass of lemonade (thinking of the lemon smell of those roses). We have only tea, which I like better anyway, and I fill a tall glass with ice and then tea, and think about the recent discoveries that show tea to be a very positive substance after all, good for all kinds of things. Like eggs, the claims of its evil were greatly exaggerated. While I’m there in the kitchen, I notice some dishes have collected on the counter and I put on some music on the CD player. Some Marin Marais to help me work through the plot points that have been bugging me on the book in progress. Donning purple surgical gloves to protect my hands, I wash the dishes and mull over the book, and think about what I might cook for dinner.

Having lazed enough, I think I should spend some more time working. Mornings are my usual work time, but today that little plot problem seems to be working itself out and I carry the glass of tea with me into the office. The cat follows me, and another joins him. The dogs are annoyed and hang at the door, but I don’t bother to make room for everyone just now. They’ll work it out.

I work for an hour and hit another wall. The boys are busy–one on the computer, one watching Japanese anime cartoons. It’s hot, after all. The swamp cooler is blowing hard, thumping in the low late afternoon, and I decide that maybe I can catch a quick nap before I have to really think about dinner. As I climb the stairs, trailed by the animals who know what I’m going to do, I think about what’s bugging me in this book. Why isn’t it working? I catch a little glimpse of the hero, bending his head into a flower. I like the way his hair falls when he does that, sliding forward to touch his high cheekbone, and when I lie down, I imagine what that really looks like. What’s around him? What sky? What sounds?

There is a bumblebee, heavy with nectar, lazing from this flower to the next. I stretch out. A cat jumps up beside me and stretches out in the soft breeze lifting the lace curtains at the window. I think of patchouli for no particular reason and as I’m drifting off, I remember how much my father hated it when I wore it. I think about how much I loved it. I fall asleep, remembering a down coat that I spilled a whole bottle of patchouli oil into, and how it never really lost that smell.

When I wake up, the cat has curled himself around my hand and I rub his chin, realizing that the hero smells of patchouli and he likes it, a vigorous scent with manly overtones. The heroine is a fan of lavender, and roses that smell of lemon. They like the bees, these two, for different reasons. The hero likes the sound of them, low and lazy. The heroine likes their single-mindedness. I think there might be a cat in this scene. An exuberant cat who has a lot to teach this careful, guarded pair.

Ah-ha. Languor wins again.

I might have sat, frustrated and growing more annoyed by the minute, at the computer until the words came unstuck. I might have struggled for days. Instead, walking away, into the lazy world of a summer afternoon, letting go, did all the work for me.

Lazily, I think it’s going to be hamburgers for dinner again. For now, it’s time to write.

Till next time,

Barbara

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