Special Guest Post: Bryan Russell on Writing and Time

A fact: Pearl Jam’s Ten came out two decades ago.

An observation: I’m getting old.

A possibility: Time is slipping away.

A curiosity: Patience is found in strange places.

An oddity (perhaps meaningful): Plaid is back in style.

An anecdote: I used to own a bookstore, but it was not as popular as plaid. It vanished blub blub without a trace, but I remember it. I used to walk to my car each day after work thinking of books, but sometimes life intruded. A car accident, an argument on the street, a homeless man beating up another over an old backpack. I made this walk each day, for years. Bits of life intruded, odd little eddies in the current. As a writer I watched, and yet sometimes watching is not enough.

An image inside the anecdote: An elderly woman crossing an intersection, pushing a walker. Her legs are weak; the walker catches in a rut and she falls, landing hard on the cement in the middle of the road. The walker pirouettes, suddenly nimble, spinning away.

It’s an image that a writer’s brain records for future use, click click , but sometimes there are more important things than writing. I was not the closest person to the woman in the street, but many people merely glanced over, a few steps away, and walked by. Perhaps they had places to be. Cars came up, curled slowly around the fallen woman, and drove on. Only one other person stopped to help.

We got her on her feet. And this is what the writer’s camera would have missed: an elderly woman, alone, with no one to help her, touched with fear, the grit of the road on her palms–this was the story, the real story. The doctor told her she had to use the walker, but she couldn’t, she told the doctor she wasn’t strong enough. The doctor and the nurses said she was. So she walked, and fell, because she needed groceries; there was no one to bring her food.

An ambulance comes: lights flashing, clean uniforms, white stretcher. Yet it’s the woman I remember, more than anything. Her hair, her voice. An impression is made as we touch each other’s lives, if only in a small way. I remember her loneliness. There was a feeling that she had let things slip away, only to find herself with tired legs in need of groceries.

A possibility, again: Time is slipping away. Isn’t this what many of us fear? A year passes, and then another, and time seems greased and slippery and hard to grasp. We want to be a writer, we want people to see our words, our stories, and yet it hasn’t happened the way we wanted, the way we once thought it would. Where did the time go? Was it really two decades ago that I was wearing plaid and wondering how to make the holes I cut in my jeans look natural?

tick tick goes the clock, click click goes the writer’s camera–but perhaps it is helping a woman off the road that makes for a better writer.

There aren’t many prodigies among novelists. The “Best Young American Writers” are usually in their late thirties. Welcome to the party, whippersnappers! It’s not just that words are hard, and the sentence is a cruel mistress; life is hard, and perhaps that hardness is important. Perhaps we can’t find a way to make the words easy until we’ve felt a little of that hardness.

I worked with an agent in my twenties. I was young, the grand plan for success was still in place. And then things… slipped. The world got a little greasy–the agent died, and my own life spun in strange circles.

An observation, again: I am getting old. It’s hard to put my feet on the ground in the morning, because I know it will hurt. The left foot, the right ankle, the right knee. tick tick goes the clock, creak creak go the joints. I use my hands to pull me up, but one finger doesn’t really work, one wrist isn’t much better, and my shoulder aches. creak creak

Yet I can stand and I can type, and I can help an old woman off the street. I can do that. And maybe that is what I have to do to find the words.

Because the writing doesn’t just come from our heads, but from our lives. Not from what we see, but from what we live. It is you that is alive in your writing, however transformed that life is by your imagination. It is the touch of your father’s sweater on your fingertip just before they close the coffin lid; it is the awful white of your wife’s lips after the miscarriage and the hemorrhaging; it is your newborn son’s red hair as you hold him; it is the first sentence your daughter speaks; it is the job you hate and the job you love; and it is the trees you plant in the yard, dreaming of the future and the greening of the world.

You are never old, not when the words are always new.

A curiosity, again: Patience is found in strange places. A hospital room, a writer’s den. You can’t rush the words any more than you can rush life. You can’t skip ahead. You live, day by day; you type, word by word. The dream I once had, the dream of easy progression, of writerdom, is gone. What is left is the writing.

The job, three children, the words I put on the page–and the constant intrusion of life. I can’t shield it out; I don’t want to. I realize this is my writing, this is me. I carve out a bit of time where I can. tick tick goes the clock, tap tap go the keys. Half asleep, at night, writing. One more revision. Just one more, until the next.

An oddity, again (perhaps meaningful): Plaid is back in style. And this is it, perhaps, the key to patience, to growing old–things come around again, even dreams. You scribble. You realize there will be other chances; there will always be chances. And this time the old woman, the white lips, the sweater, the red hair, the seedlings in the soft soil: they will all be in your words, singing in the clefts between sentences; singing in the still moments, when you have a chance to catch your breath and wash the wet earth from your fingers.

Bryan Russell is a writer, editor, and would-be cartoonist, all of which helps him recover from his former life as a teacher and bookstore owner. He lives outside a concrete garden called Windsor, Ontario, and spends most of his time tending Vampire Infants. You can find him at alchemyofwriting.blogspot.com where he publishes flash fiction and posts cartoons about the writing life.