Then as it was, then again it will be
And though the course may change sometimes
Rivers always reach the sea.
–Led Zeppelin, “Ten Years Gone”
A funny thing happened while I took my unintended writing sabbatical: Why It Matters celebrated its tenth anniversary, or rather did not celebrate that milestone. The decade mark passed with all the fanfare of a popcorn fart.
I’m not sure whether this still holds true, but a few years ago the average lifespan of a blog hovered around 100 days. That puts Wimwords in ancient territory, digitally speaking. You’re reading WIM post #2,645, though that number is a little deceptive. Many of those posts are just album cover art. Some are links to work for hire that I wrote for digital outlets, or shameless self promotion of some other sort. A couple are interviews or book, record, or concert reviews. A handful of pieces were even authored by others.
Filter out all of those posts and what remains are the short stories, think pieces, writing tips, memoir, and miscellany that remained my reason to show up every Monday, sabbatical notwithstanding, for the last decade. That’s 520 Mondays, give or take a few, for which I begrudgingly admit to feeling a little proud. If showing up is half the job then I’m at least halfway successful.
That was my sole motivation for starting a blog–a reason to show up, a way to hold myself publicly accountable to a writing routine. I’m all about routines regardless of their purpose: fitness, nutrition, chores, sleep, oral hygiene, whatever. Get me into a groove and I can make something happen; expect me to get it done ad hoc and I flail. For me, “You will publish something each Monday at 8 a.m. Pacific” is equivalent to “You will lace up your running shoes each Sunday for a ten-miler.” I can sit on my lazy butt all week if I choose, but if I do then Sunday is going to hurt like a sumbitch.
My plan was to retire the Why It Matters name at the ten year mark. That title was not only a compromise–“Why Music Matters” was already taken–but also was specific to my first story arc, a childhood memoir inspired by memories evoked by particular songs. As I write this, for example, “Slow Ride” plays in the background. Ten years ago the memory that this song may have dislodged was listening to my sister’s boyfriend’s Foghat Live 8-track while the couple wrestled on the basement couch. Thanks to the last decade of writing I can choose now between that vignette or the afternoon I spent with Foghat drummer Roger Earl eating chicken and talking about music, wine, and life. You may hear a played-out classic rock staple when “Slow Ride” blares from your diner’s speakers, but that song matters quite a bit to my life’s soundtrack.
Regardless, I’m done with that music memoir story now, so why what matters, exactly? The title has long outlived its usefulness.
My first five years in this space were my most productive, at least in measurable ways. These were the years that I wrote for hire, submitted work to literary magazines and stuck religiously to my Wimwords Monday posting schedule. Just past the half decade mark my mother died, and my ensuing depression left me questioning not why music matters but rather why anything matters. Writing for hire was no more than a factory production line job, and publishing in literary magazines was just a masturbatory exercise in ego gratification. (If you’re questioning how masturbating can feed one’s ego then you’re tracking with me here.)
Children aside, I decided that the only thing that mattered was making art: an incredibly frivolous, childish assertion in a capitalist country where art is for grade schoolers and bored wealthy people. The rest of us–at least if we want to eat, keep roofs over our heads, and maintain some level of access to healthcare–better figure out some way to grind out a living.
I decided that it was time to stop focusing on writing pieces that I took no pride in. My work for hire was as disposable as a greasy fast food bag–nothing more than “content” that websites could feed into their machines to keep algorithms happy. I also decided that it was time to stop focusing on short work like essays and short stories and go for a novel. The idea for a book was there as were the hazy silhouettes of characters awaiting both personalities and their opportunities to speak, emote, and navigate their ways through space and time. What I lacked were routine and accountability for a task the size of a novel. I simply had no idea how to organize my time for the creation of a long piece of fiction involving multiple characters and story lines, nor did I know how to ensure that I would keep showing up without my Monday posting deadlines.
“Why not share your novel pages” may seem like a reasonable solution but that doesn’t work for a couple of reasons, the most pertinent being that talking about or sharing too much of a work in progress tends to steal its mojo. We all have friends who tell us about their great story ideas in meticulous detail but never actually write them, and why should they? What’s the point of writing a story that’s already been told?
Or maybe that’s just an excuse, but for what I’m not sure–laziness, failure, fear, inability, I don’t know. All I’m certain of is that after my mother passed I experienced the predictable “life’s too short for bullshit” mental shift, but not the physical and fiscal adjustments required to live a creatively fulfilling life. I expected my creative life to magically change without disruption to the rest of my life.
And so I made no progress on the novel that would allow me to feel like I was inching my writing football forward. Basically the five years since my mother died have been spent in an ever-hardening chrysalis woven from the sort of pleasant apathy that one is told to expect from middle age, when we cross over the Rubicon dividing love and hope and sex and dreams from compromise and surrender to life’s inevitabilities. A few years ago a television commercial declared that no child ever wished to be a middle manager, which sums up nicely what I’m trying to articulate.
I saw an old friend recently who over drinks asked me what my goals were for the future. “Prepare for a good death,” I said. That was all that I could picture from my future: A death without fear. I’m sure that reply was informed by my father’s recent passing, but the best I could come up with when trying to hit the ubiquitous “where do you see yourself in five years” softball was “dying well.” My future was completely devoid of any ambitions.
This is precisely what causes us to rust from the inside out, this voluntary dimming of the little light that shines within us. Some call it ambition, others dreams or purpose. A few call it our child nature but I like to think of it as our soul, and our souls don’t always align with our surroundings. There’s nothing more devastating to a kid of any chronological age whose soul has “artist” imprinted upon it than a snarky comment like, “Hey, the world needs ditch diggers, too.” Once that soul light dims we fade toward invisibility, and inevitably our bodies follow.
I’ve told my children repeatedly that humans are meant to make things. It doesn’t matter what we make provided it inspires that “I made this” feeling. Grow ginger. Make gingerbread. Build a gingerbread house. Build a bird house. Build a real house. Build a family. Each of these has the capacity to enrich your spirit, to make your light shine a little brighter. Dancing, baking, music, knitting, painting, ceramics, woodworking, hot rods, physical achievements, writing–strip away the artifice and they all serve the same spiritual purpose: I made this. When that’s gone nothing remains but dying well.
A new year is upon us, the eleventh for Why It Matters and the first for whatever chrysalis inside of me seems to be cracking open five long years after my mother fluttered away. What will emerge? I have no idea, but I suspect that’s what matters for the next 52 Mondays.