One of my best friends has a 1973 Pontiac Firebird.
For as long as I've known him, he's been a classic car fanatic. Knows more about cars than anything I know. For holidays we buy each other matchbox cars, and possibly the most daunting part about moving to college is choosing which cars I want to bring with me. It's his birthday today, actually.
Junior year was when he started searching harder for a car — it was the year we got our licenses, after all, and for him I think it was a sign that everything would open up. Actually buying that muscle car — feeling the steering wheel under his hands — would cement for him that life would get better after high school. I thought of him going out west, flying down into the sunset in some decade-bending teenage cowboy tribute to Cannonball Run. He shopped around for a bit — sent me pictures and videos of cars all different colors, white and red and black and gray.
Then, finally, the summer before our senior year. He chose a car from New York state: a blue 1973 Pontiac Firebird, two white stripes down the hood, white interior. He named the car Bluebird. He has a matching baseball cap. Bluebird is his baby.
I got to see it before anybody else. It was a late summer day, August sucking the life out of all the trees. The garage air was thick and saturated with the smell of gasoline. Bluebird took up space in both a literal and metaphorical way, tangible in a new and dazzling sense. Under my hand it was solid and comforting, not thin like my humble (but worshiped) 2002 VW Passat. My friend pulled open the door and let me sit. It was sort of like entering Wonderland; the world got so much bigger, and I got so much smaller, dropping into those beat-up white leather seats.
Now, I did ask permission to write this piece. The caveat, my friend said, was that he wanted me to say how many times this car has broken down on him. And I would be such a liar if I didn't report that (although I’m bad with the specifics). The first time he took Bluebird out, it was leaking gas all over the road — one of the problems I remembered (without asking him) was that there was a hole in the gas tank. He’s taken it for a few other spins. Most of those ended with a dead battery and a call to AAA. He had to wait a year to get it to a mechanic, and it took up all the free space in his mind. I introduced him to another friend of mine, and the two of them took up the free space in my mind talking nonstop about their cars that they were fixing up.
I had an image of Bluebird fitting flawlessly into our senior year, as I think my friend did. I thought he'd become a legend in that thing, cruising around our small town, pulling us up to prom like a couple of movie stars. We never really got that, but the 20 minutes I have gotten make up for that.
He always told me I would be the first person he drove in that car. And he kept his promise, texting me the day after graduation, to let me know that it was time. I wanted to write about how difficult springtime had been for me. We had undergone so many big changes — we’d just graduated high school, I turned 18 about ten days before. For the entire month of June I had been wasting away as I fell for a girl who hardly gave me the time of day. Earlier that morning we had dropped my grandma off at the airport, and now there was nothing to distract me.
And then came the text from my dear friend.
The garage door opened, and it was just as it was a year ago, when I got to see the car for the first time. This hulking, beautiful, powerful machine. I excitedly slid into the seat, rolled down the window, discovered there was no working seatbelt. He revved up the engine. Slowly, energy and excitement fizzing around, he began to back out the driveway, me craning my head to see the best I could if he was going to hit the curb.
And then we were off. I had been nervous that the car would break down, but those worries quickly dissipated as he maneuvered the car around construction and we went up to a circular neighborhood (one of suburban condo hotspots). I couldn’t help but laugh out loud; my mom had no idea I was being driven around in a muscle car, playing the Beatles from my phone, the wind in my hair. To this day, it is one of my most fond memories. I can’t imagine the triumph I assume my friend felt as we drove around.
He took me home after in his normal boring modern car and I expected it to be somewhat anticlimactic, but the feeling stayed. That buzzing joy of riding in his 1973 Pontiac Firebird.
It’s been hard for me to write this piece. The only thing, it seems, that has gotten me out of that rut is the song anything by Adrianne Lenker, and the swell of love for my friend that I get every time I saw this challenge. It’s his car, but he’s my friend, and I think the two are inevitably linked. I’m submitting this largely unedited. It is all from the heart, from the mind.
I miss you
enveloped your heart
though drown it
you verily tried
caring, loving -
the unconditional love
of a daughter;
when you passed
and your wife gave me
you'd lovingly saved,
tucked inside -
how i cried -
Father's Day cards
you were loved
to keep you
Now 30 years
to know you
to love you
Natural woodgrain, smoothly shaped into
the form of the thing it will be.
“It’s a good line,” he says of the boat,
running his hand along the raw gunwale before
eyeing it once more from the stern.
The sawdusted floor dwarfs his house, and that’s
room one. He’s reorganizing his tools, and we
walk among their groups to the door and gravel path.
He almost died on his fortieth birthday.
He was not, luckily, in this cabin, where pain would have
rendered the phone bric-a-brac among the books.
His mother had said he needed a doctor, and
his father had helped him off the floor.
“Forty-two is time for a partner,” he says, a
second tumbler of fine scotch in his head.
Another friend has another someone
to meet, he says, strumming a few chords.
But what would he do in Wilmington, he laughs.
He has an open-air bath tub, a reloading table,
a coop with three chickens, DVDs from the library,
a whiteboard wall with three dozen recommendations
of books and poets and conversations and films.
Tomorrow someone will pay him a few grand for
new molding, and three more word-of-mouth jobs await.
For now, he sleeps in his loft next to books from seminary,
dreaming perhaps of a boat that will wend toward
in-season geese, maybe soon.
Tapping the Sap [repost]
I tried something new this past Friday [in December 2020]. I dedicated a day off work to writing. To my relief, I did so successfully.
Examining my paystub recently, I observed an unintentional accumulation of personal days, as it turns out that I hadn’t taken one in three years. The times being what they are, a day off seemed in order, so when my lessons could aligned so classes could reasonably run without me and my principal indicated the substitute situation was manageable, I put in for my day. I’ve been making an effort to take my writing seriously, and this day constituted something of a test.
Dedicating a calendar block to writing had never worked for me. I’ve often felt at my most creative when there’s some menial task to which I should attend: dishwashing, cleaning, grading papers… My spirit chafes at the work and flies away from it toward creativity. But when I have declared that the writing is the work, my perverse little spirit has flown from it, too.
I think my difficulty has had something to do with the nature of literature. Writing, I think, requires an extraordinary degree of self-presence. Our lyric poems, our vignettes, and our characters all feed on little pieces of us and our impressions; they can feed on nothing else. If I feel divorced from my own being and experience, if I am blocked from feeling wholly present, then I am blocked from writing creatively.
Zanlexus wrote a piece for this challenge suggesting that writer’s block might be the psychic or emotional equivalent of the injury that prevents a construction worker from building, which led me to follow this thread of writing and the self. The comparison of Zanlexus holds true, I think. I do not lose my skills as a writer when experiencing blockage. I can still crank out a sample analysis of a text for my class or edit a letter for a colleague: what I think of as “yeoman writing,” which I’ve trained for extensively and do not need to draw from my own experiences to do. Creative writing, though, is a different animal. It feeds not only on my technical skills or logical analysis, but on my capability to express to someone else how I think and feel, with the center squarely on the “I.”
When I understand writing creativity as an output of the core, internal self, it does make sense for it to come more easily when I should be doing something else. The tension between what I must do and what I want to do fuels my imaginative fancy. Stuck in a cage of sorts, I dream about life beyond the bars. This drifting from task is my self trying to exert its authority. There is, obviously, a limitation to the utility of external demands: if there’s not only a cage but an electrified one, or if the walls are closing in, anxiety can overwhelm any sense of creativity. Awful and draining experiences have inspired many a work of literature, but I think for the most part Wordsworth pegged it in his intro to Lyrical Ballads: “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, recollected in tranquility.” I write not when I feel the powerful emotions, but once they’ve become part of me and my life experiences, when I can recollect them and access them.
That introspection is necessary to writing creatively, if the work is to resonate emotionally, and introspection tends to result from stimuli more than appointment. One does not frequently say, “At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, I will reflect on my life and my psycho-emotional state.” And down-time often passes in a series of actions intended to bring relaxation through distraction; someone exhausted and looking to forget about life for a while will probably not do much soul-searching. Introspection might happen in response to someone’s questions, though, or in response to a place or a song or a poem.
I nearly let my day of writing slip away on Friday. I was tired. I had devoted a lot of energy to teaching and parenting and household chores, and with those demands temporarily at bay, I automatically leaned toward pleasant distractions to “unwind.” I had been awake at 6:30 (though I caught another nap), and by 10:30, I had still written nothing.
So I pulled up recent Prose posts. Reading the writing of others is the surest way for me to feel inspired. Experiencing the creations of others, also striving to self-express, fills me with the desire to offer my own efforts to the world. On this particular morning, I read pieces by deathbyaudio, KMCassidy, and paintingskies, but if you’re reading this post, then chances are at some point I’ve turned to your work, too. I value this community, and I want to remain connected to it. I’ve promised myself to post something at least once per week, even if other projects consume most of my time, and to continue actively reading. Prose can keep me going.
I also found the right music. Music equals mindset, and the right song at the right time can unlock a profusion of feeling. I needed Patty Smith’s Horses on Friday (particularly “Gloria”), and later a Brahms symphony. Other frequent writing music includes Lana del Rey, Beethoven’s symphonies, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, and Wilco’s Being There (playing presently). Nearly everything I write has a soundtrack, and once I find what it is, I get the mood I need for the mode I need.
At some point you’ve felt “on” if you’re a writer; otherwise, you probably wouldn’t want to write. There’s a direct conduit from the mind through the fingers onto the page. There’s a flow. Creativity has many times been likened to a well or a spring, but that seems inaccurate to me because the water, the self, isn’t just sitting there to be drawn up and used. Maple syrup is a more apt metaphor. There’s sap flowing inside the wood. It must be tapped, drawn, and boiled, and if you harvest fifty gallons of rawness, you can finish with one gallon of sweet, finished syrup. You live a lot, and you lock it away, and if you can get at enough of it and distill it enough, you can yield something beautiful.
Whether syrup or water, it’s no accident that our metaphors for literary inspiration are liquid. Solids cause blocks. It’s the flow we seek.
Insisting on the perfection of that flow held me back for a long time. A piece felt so good to write, but the morning light revealed all the flaws and doubts. Without realizing it, I was subscribing to that water model, as though I needed only to pour and realize perfection. But writing needs to be worked at, and I let myself do it, now. I have an outline of my novel: I know where the characters are going and what moments carry them there. A chapter represents my effort to fill in the humanity of it all, making the journey authentic and felt, but on a first try, I will get it wrong. I have learned not to stop when I doubt that it holds together because I know, with certainty, that it doesn’t. It will not read with smoothness, clarity and verisimilitude until I return a day or a week later and fix it. I am following the advice I have given high school students for years: get something down and then revise, because revision is easier and blank pages are terrifying. I am trusting my ability to find the missing pieces. Each chapter and each draft is a problem to be solved.
Having a skilled and trusted editor doesn’t hurt, either.
I should say, clearly, that I’ve never actually finished a novel, and that I abandoned my only prior attempt after thirteen chapters when I concluded it was bad. (Trust me, it was… though I did later post a rejiggered chapter to Prose under the title “Mass.”) EDIT: I finished! I’m proud; it’s not published; I’m at work on the next. But I’m trying, and I’m confident this time. I wrote about 1300 unpolished words that Friday. I was curious, so I looked it up, and Stephen King goes for 2,000 a day, so in that sense I fell short. But Hemingway and Graham Green only tried for 500 words a day. That didn’t seem so bad, and I’ve read more of their stuff than King’s, anyway.
All told, my experiment was a success: I did write. I got 1300 words, and I finished the last 400 of the chapter the next day, and I’m working on the editing. It would have been easier on my day off to lull myself into relaxation with something readily on demand, like John Mulaney on Netflix, or a half hour of beating on cartoon characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But I passed my test. I applied what I had learned about my process and inspiration and I wrote, and it was better than relaxing. I felt rejuvenated. I was myself, intensely.
A few words to be shared.
I was born; happily, I am here, still alive to write for you, fellow Readers.
I live in Ukraine. We struggle, and I must assure you, this is not going to stop. Fighting for freedom is too much in human nature, it seems, to stop in the middle of fighting.
Now a few more words about me. I write for challenges only, being too idle to challenge myself; that means I must thank fellows who post challeges for introducing my into the world of writing.
Thus, thank you, everybody!
Took This Prompt Too Literally
What do I truly know?
That I exist because I think
Everything else must be speculation.
So yes, I write what I wish I knew
I wish that I could be sure that my memories have happened
That I will go to exotic climes and places
That heartbreak can be resolved neatly
All I can be sure of is that I right now am alive
Clutching every second, drowning in time.
So my writing is the result of a human forcing herself to believe in her memories.
All that I write is what I don't know
Learn What You Write
You can write about anything, with the proper research. Of course writing what you know is easier, but it shouldn't limit you in your writing. Branch out, read, learn. If you don't know something, you should look it up rather than omitting it. If you want to be a better writer, then you should better yourself.