At 7:18 am, I wake up, bleary-eyed, remnants of a cold lingering in my sinuses, listening to the rain and noticing how grey it is through the space between my worn fabric shades and the window frame. I haven’t seen this time in, well, a long time. I’m up so uncharacteristically early that the cats come in only after I sit up in bed to check my phone, as opposed to t at least four of them piling on top of me until I rise, reluctantly.
There is only one thing that can make me do this: I’m in love.
Awww, how sweet, you think.
Except, not the kind of love you imagine. I’m not in love with a person. I’m in love with an idea.
Yesterday was a whirlwind of making a neat stack of books and journal articles to read and take notes, to scattering that same pile willy-nilly all over my living room floor when I got bored/tired/disillusioned with the first, then the second, then the third source that didn’t quite give me what I wanted. Things shifted over, then, to taking more notes on tv episodes, still not finding what I need. Things shifted again to a frantic email to my co-editor, a cry of “I don’t know what angle to take, there is X, Y, and Z, and nothing calls to me, HELP!?!” Then, back to the article I had just discarded, “Read it again”, I said, “You missed something”, then over to Facebook to ask for help finding stats, does anyone have any ideas? Not much at first, a direction to ask someone in legal studies. Yeah, ok, but that waits till Monday, I’m trying to find it now…
What was I trying to find? My angle, my approach, my argument.
I’m writing literary criticism, and this is how it goes.
My method is to take copious notes and the image forms in my mind and I’m off to the races. There is something to be said for “totality” and “effect”, two terms I talk about in literature class when I cover Poe, who preferred to generate an idea for a preconceived effect and then keep only the pieces that fit and discard the rest. He also preferred to create works that could be read in one sitting.
I think I prefer to create works in what amounts to one sitting. Sure that sitting might take days or weeks, but once I’m focused, there I am. Totality means I’m there, focused, and everything I do, everything I am, is centered on this razor-thin edge, and nothing else matters.
This is what I remember about being in love.
It has been ages since I have been in love with a person. But in love with an idea? It happens all the time, at least to me.
Two places it happens a lot: in the bathtub and in my car. For some reason, when I take a bath, I get ideas in my head that should, nay must, be acted upon. Often I get out of the bath and it’s a mad rush to towel off and get dressed to run to my phone or computer or bookshelves. And when I drive to work (funny it’s only TO work, not FROM work, that I get ideas) I often leave myself voice messages that, strangely enough, I never go back and listen to, for simply saying the idea aloud fixes it firmly in my mind.
I take a bath every day; I drive to work 5 days a week. So I think of ideas a lot.
But some of these ideas are sort of like crushes. I have a tendency to think up things and get super duper excited about them and then within mere hours, I might forget I ever thought about them: ideas for projects, creative pieces, critical pieces, courses I might invent, pieces I might stitch. Some become larger and more permanent fixations, but most are just fleeting flirtations.
But when it comes to hardcore literary criticism, I don’t play.
I fall utterly and completely in love. And this is how it goes.
I dance around an idea; I try to feed it information, facts, quotes, and notes. I try to see what sticks. I panic and usually vent to a friend. I distract myself on social media. I read some more. And I worry, oh, do I ever worry, that this time, I will fail. See I have never failed at literary criticism. Oh, I’ve had work rejected, sure. But I’m talking about failure to write a piece that I had to write. I’ve never failed at that. And every time I write something, I have a personal goal, that it be at least as good as the last piece I wrote, but secretly, I want it to be even better.
That’s impossible, of course. You can’t keep raising the bar for yourself. You only set yourself up to fail. But so far I haven’t, so every time, I panic that this will be the time that I don’t come up with something good or better than before.
What is ridiculous about that is that I don’t look back and think that each piece I have written is better than the last–there are some pieces I love and some that time has made me realize were not as great as I thought, but then again, I’m judging those pieces with older, wiser eyes, and it’s not fair to judge my younger, less experienced self. And in a way each piece is a child to me, something that I birthed after a long labor. And you’re not supposed to love one of your children more than you love the others. And yet, I have to admit, sometimes I do.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When the piece is finished, when it is published, then I feel love for it as if it were my own child. But when I’m still creating it, then I feel like I’m falling in love with a partner. I am excited; I am anxious; I am driven; I am obsessed.
When I am working on a piece, I feel exactly like I did back when I was in college and I was working on my English papers for graduate school. I remember vividly walking around the library at Millersville University, deep in the stacks, pulling books from shelves, scanning the table of contents, lifting more books than I could reasonably carry and taking them out to my car. I remember microfilm; I hated, absolutely abhorred, loading that machine, afraid I’d need to ask for help, god forbid I have to speak to someone, afraid I’d tear the old film worse than the end had already been torn from use and time.
I remember the moment when I scanned that film, those books, and found what I needed. I remember that moment of enlightenment, of discovery. I felt so powerful when that happened, as if I had suddenly, irrevocably, touched on a nerve, a pulse, that no one else had seen before. The crux of my argument; the best piece of evidence; the stone left unturned.
And it is those moments that came back to me in the midst of my frantic search for “the idea”, “the angle”, last night when things began to come together–the response of a friend on Facebook who found the stats I needed and more; the line in the journal article I’d read a dozen times that finally held a different meaning for me; the email from my co-editor that tilted the balance in one direction; the quote from the tv series, that finally suggested my title.
I felt like I was falling in love again when all those things converged.
That is why this morning, I woke up so early without an alarm. Why I felt jittery on those 4 hours of broken sleep yet got up immediately to make some very strong coffee. Why I fed the cats a big treat of canned food–I feel celebratory, why shouldn’t they? Why I bustled around my kitchen happily singing to myself while cleaning up the plates I’d left there last night in a pile when my attention was elsewhere. Why I looked in the mirror and realized that I hadn’t styled my hair in days nor put any makeup on and looked a right mess, but I didn’t care. Why I feel a bit anxious and a bit excited and the emotions keep bouncing back and forth and despite the dreary weather outside, I feel the sun radiate from inside me, because I feel alive.
I have the idea. I’m still dancing around committing it fully to paper, but I have a sense of it now. I am not going to fail, and I know it. It’s going to be better than the last piece I wrote (which meant a hell of a lot to me, and I was in love with that piece at the time, but that affair is over).
I’m writing about The Wire this time, and I keep playing a few lines over and over in my mind as inspiration. As Lester Freamon says to Prez, “We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.”
Yes they do.
And whether you’re falling in love or looking back fondly on a love that ended, you want to remember every single bit of it.