What Matters, Then?

I spent most of yesterday sitting in a coffee shop writing and giggling and stuffing my face with the 100 calorie no-butter bag of popcorn that Starbucks sells as their “healthy” option, but then it really just gave me a craving for popcorn, so I went home and made a big pot with lots of butter on it and probably 500 more calories and ate that instead of dinner…. which is…. not what I started out trying to say but I got really caught up in remembering that popcorn and the slippery slope Starbucks led me on. I’m also a firm believer in day-old popcorn. Yes you heard me- popcorn that sat out overnight (sure- in the fridge, if that makes you feel better) and the next day has that perfect cold salty leftover butter taste. I know how “leftover butter” sounds but sue me, okay, I like it. And now I can’t remember what I was talking about… oh yes- giggling in Starbucks.

I was giggling because right now I’m writing a comedy- a long form web series- with my writing partner** but I have to admit that I actually feel quite guilty to be working on a comedy in 2016/2017; with the overabundance of refugee crises, civil wars, oil protests, high unemployment, mass gun incidents, hate crimes- how could I possibly sit and write something as inconsequential as a comedy? I know the point of comedy is often to make us laugh and help us take our minds off of so much tragedy, but I’m usually of the mindset that in my privileged state, I don’t really deserve to have my mind “taken off” the world’s problems- shouldn’t I, a middle class white woman with two degrees that my parents significantly helped pay for, have a responsibility to keep my mind firmly turned ON so I can acknowledge and filter and have compassion for all the hurt in the world? I think so. As a writer especially, I do feel a substantial obligation to have my eyes wide open- to see injustice and write about it to bring awareness to it- to point out where I see places where our world is broken so that perhaps someone with the right resources or connections, or even myself, is inspired to help fix those areas. All of this makes writing a silly comedy feel, well, silly, and the rest of my writing that is “supposed to” have a social conscience feel incredibly overwhelming. It’s moments like these when, in order not to become completely paralyzed with fear and stop writing altogether, I have to bring myself back to basics, which starts with acknowledging that I am one writer, one person, and a bit of humility might be in order to remind myself that I can’t change the world on my own, nor do I have the power to (yes, yes, be the change you hope to see in the world, I know, but I myself am still a very small, relatively insignificant cog in the wheel and I’m quite painfully aware of that).

 And so, the writing prompt* that I sent out to my lovely (I’m assuming- I haven’t actually met most of you but I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt) subscribers this week was part of my own self-centering- an attempt to ask myself, as a writer, when the world can feel in turmoil, and I have the privilege of wielding a pen to talk about it- WHAT MATTERS?.... What really matters? Where should my attention be? What do I focus on? What stories should I tell? I’m inspired by a section of a book-length poem called Red Creek: A Requiem by brilliant and controversial poet, Margaret Robison (yes, you’ve heard that name before- Annette Bening played her, albeit quite neurotically and not in a great light, in the semi-biographical film Running With Scissors). This one very small section of the poem (made up of images from a small town in Georgia) goes like this:

What matters, then?
Poetry matters, and the line
that will not break
under the weight of history.
What matters, then?
A single gardenia broken
from the dark-leafed bush.
What matters, then?
The dark-leafed bush.
What matters, then?
The gardenia.

What I love about this section of the poem is how Robison narrows in, gradually, on one single image. She starts with largely abstract concepts: poetry, history, weight, which can be difficult for a reader (or writer!) to connect to. Instead of letting herself stop there (which I am tempted to do in my writing so often: “what matters is world peace! Happiness! An end to poverty!”), which perhaps would have left the reader nodding their head in grave agreement but then nervously moving on to something more palatable, she pushes herself to look closer- look harder. She finds one image to focus on- one thing that, I imagine, she could look out her window and know for sure was true, was real. And then, once she puts it on paper, she forces herself to look even harder- what, of the single broken gardenia in the bush, matters? Is it the bush- the thing that grows the flower, the thing that sustains it? No, she decides, it’s the flower itself. Notice she leaves out the descriptive word, “broken” in the final line. She doesn’t place that judgement, that tragedy on it. She just lets it be, lets it stand to be what it is. She gives it a place. She gives it acknowledgement. She does not let her heart bleed for it, does not try to fix it, does not try to solve it. She just narrows her focus-- what matters? what matters now? look further- don’t stop here- find the grain of truth- find the thing you can really say is true—until she finds the thing. I don’t mean to say that this poem proves the only thing that matters is flowers, or beauty, or anything like that- that would undo the very thing Robison set out to do, I think, which is to swipe away the abstract like cobwebs- push past those theoretical concepts (resources, sexuality, power) that end up leading us to war, to hate, to ignorance, to separation- so we can see beyond them to the single truths we can agree on. Maybe you think I’m reading into this too much… I promise you I’m no “find the hidden meaning” English student; my degrees are in creative writing and, contrary to popular belief, we didn’t have to read or analyze anything- we were a bunch of dreamers secretly reading a lot of Harry Potter and Grimms’ fairytales.

But my point is, sometimes as writers, when we are overwhelmed, when we feel a responsibility to write about something that feels “important”, when we don’t know where to start: one place to begin is to ask yourself: what matters, then? And this is not a static answer- it can change from day to day, or even moment to moment. For example, right now even as I write this I can look out the window in my tiny cold top-floor office and see snow piled and dripping off the highest bough of an evergreen tree. The way it’s piled- like a solid thing, a down pillow thrown up in the tree. The way it’s melting- from inside itself, the edges first, like sucking the juice out of a slurpee until only the ice is left.

What matters, then?
The harsh ice left unthawed
in the crevices of the pine needles
far into the much longed-for spring.
What matters, then?
The harsh ice unthawed.
But what matters, THEN?
The spring.

As Frankenstein's ill-fated lover, Elizabeth, would say:
"Adieu! Take care of yourself; and, I entreat! write!"

* Each Saturday morning I send out a 10-minute writing prompt to those writers and creatives who want a little burst of inspiration to jumpstart storytelling. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the goodness and join the party!

**Yes, I have a permanent professional writing partner- his name is Todd and he lives in LA and our agent pitches us as a writing/directing duo and we literally could not be more different as people but we seem to share the same brain when it comes to writing… I’m not sure this really was necessary to put in a footnote, but I just felt you should know about Todd. He’s a nice guy. Everyone needs a nice guy named Todd in their lives.