A loud, absent thing: On writing and wishing

Ashley Wurzbacher

Nov 28, 2011

It's the end of my first semester in Houston and I've been wishing it would snow. I came here by myself from the Northwest and I left a lot of things behind-- people, yes, but also things that are catching up to me now, asking unspoken questions that go something like this: Is writing really important enough for you to have left us behind? Sometimes I'm not sure it is. I miss dramatic changes of season, pastries made with huckleberries, frozen lakes. I miss the deer that paraded by my window every day in Missoula and the drive my partner and I did not get paid enough to make, into the Bitterroot Valley in winter to teach students who too often didn't make it to class. I miss the air on snowy days so clogged with white that we could not make out the mountains that we knew were hiding in the distance like gods. And I miss my old pine-shaded apartment in Spokane, sitting on the roof with good friends and cheap wine. I miss the moose my partner and I stopped to watch one day in a woman's snowy yard, munching on a shrub outsider her window, and the woman in a stained housedress and fuzzy slippers who stepped onto her stoop shouting, Shoo! Shoo, you! I find myself wondering silly things: Whatever happened to that woman in slippers in the snow? In those places, and in the places I inhabited before them, Pennsylvania, England, there were moments of discomfort, as there are anywhere, and there were extremes of cold, and I'm sure there were times when I wished for warmth the way I now wish for cold. Houston's warmth is harsh in its own unique way-- too close, like breath. I keep listening to Joni Mitchell's "River" and feeling like she's singing to me: But it don't snow here/ It stays pretty green½ My classmates and I arrived here in 109-degree weather, humidity so intense I felt always wrapped in plastic. Now summer is over, but the leaves don't fall, and flowers still bloom-- everything is still lush, even after summer's drought, in a way that I find confusing. And lately, when it rains, it rains furiously. There seem to be extremes of everything but cold. There other inhospitalities, too: stark metal gates in front of houses. Lizards. Roaches. I guess what I'm saying is, it can be a challenge being here, figuring the place out. I'm unsettled and yet on some level I recognize that this unsettled state is okay, natural, even good-- and nurturing to the writing life. There is some need that won't be quiet and leave me alone, and the only way to deal with it is through reading, writing, and thereby connecting myself to that loud, absent thing that won't stop nagging me, that elsewhere that refuses to be left behind. To what extent is all writing just thinly-veiled wishing? And in many ways, reading, too? I wish I knew what it was like to ______. I wish I understood why someone would ______. I wish there were still mountains on the horizon. I wish the leaves would fall instead of hanging on, staying green, trying to trick me into thinking we're stagnant, that the earth has stopped turning and I'm stuck. I wish it would snow. Like Joni Mitchell, I wish I had a river I could skate away on. As people who write, I think, we have to be always ready to walk into things that are going to do all they can to throw us out. The act of writing itself is one such thing. What's more, we have to make sacrifices in order to enter this hostile space, the space where creation happens, twisted as it may sometimes seem to do so. Virginia Woolf reminds us in A Room of One's Own that to write, to create,
is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty½Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world's notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them.
I need them, though, and if you're reading this chances are you do, too. The other day, wishing for some familiarity, wishing for cold, I reread Richard Hugo's 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. And what I had been hoping would happen when I picked up the book, happened: I was transported. I thought, there is St. Ignatius in the snow. There is something that I know. It's amazing how someone else's letters to someone else can answer my questions, speak to my concerns, conjure images I need to see. How those letters can deceive me into believing they were meant for me all along. It's snowing/ in Missoula, has been off and on for days but no fierce winds/ and no regrets, Hugo writes to Marvin Bell in "Letter to Bell from Missoula." And I think, Okay. Yes, the world is still turning. I write little when I feel that everything is in place, when I am content with just being still. Maybe in the end this is where all writing comes from: the presence of missing things, the unmet needs, the slow opening of spaces that need filling. Maybe, too, literature derives its power from its ability to help us navigate those spaces, to realize the ways in which we connect across them. I'll leave you, then, with Gabriel Conroy in one of literature's greatest scenes of snow and absence, the final paragraph of Joyce's "The Dead":
A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.