The world's fastest Emperor's Waltz

Still stuck on this speed idea (so much so that I'm writing in fragments). It's obviously part of the culture -- faster is better, racing ahead, wanting more stuff, newer stuff, faster gadgets, things that die out quickly and need to be replaced. Always the sense of not keeping up, not doing enough. Not having enough. The gratitude lists some people do -- they can seem corny -- but I think they're kind of magical. It really does change your mood, as quickly as a glass of good pinot noir, to list 5 or 10 things you are grateful for in that moment. It also feels great to say -- this is enough. Back in May there was a street fair nearby and we did two rides with Wally, a giant slide and then little looping cars, and then we headed home to play in the yard. I felt bad because all the other kids were going on tons of rides and getting all-day passes. Alex said, (he really is not always the voice of reason, but) two rides is enough for a 2-year-old. Of course. Just like when I told a therapist I felt bad that the music class had not worked out for us and she said, "Did you take music?" I started to answer yes -- I have over the years taken piano, guitar, voice....she meant, as a 2-year-old, did you take a music class? Of course not. No one we know would have dreamed of anything like that.

In so many ways, saying "this is enough" feels better. Shopping -- putting things back on the shelf that you considered buying. No, I don't really need this. It's just one more thing to take care of. To have cluttering up the house. (I always want to do a New Yorker-style cartoon of people trying to make room on the shelves for books on simplifying and decluttering.) Even like in Michael Pollan's Food Rules, eat until you're not hungry anymore, not until you are full. And in lifestyle choices too. Last weekend my sister said something fantastic -- this whole "women can have it all" thing is misleading. You can have any of it, she was saying, but not all at once. She's right. The having-it-all all at once illusion is making many of us crazy.

Still, despite the shared societal aspects of speed, and wanting more, overbooking our schedules which my cousin Leah calls "hoarding" (love that, it's so unpleasant, gross even, that ever since she said it I've been much better at not overbooking because of that image, a spilling-over calendar like a spilling-over closet), I do have some strange addiction to it that I don't see others necessarily sharing. Or do you? I remember being told at my junior year piano recital by somebody else's dad, "That was the fastest Emperor's Waltz I've ever heard." I took it as an enormous compliment and walked away beaming. News Flash, 17-year-old Rachel: I don't think he meant it that way. It was fast. It wasn't necessarily good. It may have been impressive in a certain way, like doing well on a test you didn't study enough for, but it's not really that impressive in the long run.

When it comes to writing, as I mentioned in the last post, I am addicted to rough drafts, and moving on. I was growing increasingly mad at myself for not being more committed to writing, but I recently realized I write all the time, throw stuff out and replace and rewrite it, but what I don't do is send things out. Every time I look at writer's guidelines, my eyes glaze over. Formatting, headers, self-addressed stamped envelopes, deadlines, simultaneous submissions...too complicated, too boring. "You know what?" I inevitably say to myself after a few minutes, "I'll skip it." Requires too much discipline and a spreadsheet and not being careless. In rough drafts you can be careless but in final drafts, in submissions, you have to be so damn careful. You have to pay too much attention. And it's not that I can't do it. Many times I had to copyedit at B&N and found it offered its own zen pleasures. But it requires slowing down, saying -- I might not finish this today, and that's all right. The point of ludicrousness this reached in my personal work is that I usually don't copy stuff I handwrite into the computer. So I have chapters of novels written in various notebooks and on loose pages all over the place, and I will not take the time to transcribe them. It feels like wasting time. And that's the crazy part, I know.

So my one little positive step for right now is not to -- as much as I feel compelled and want to -- jump into Nanowrimo again this year (writing a novel in a month) but instead to rewrite the novel I wrote last November. Discipline. Restraint. Not burying myself in more drafts. (That in itself is a kind of hoarding, I suppose.) Not the world's fastest Emperor's Waltz. Doing one small thing better.

So what about the oars?

Growing up, we used to rent summer houses in New Hampshire or Vermont for a few weeks with family friends. We'd swim in the lakes, have big groups dinners and marathon Round Robin ping pong matches, and sing The Hour When the Ship Comes In every night. Big Alan is one of my dad's best friends, and Little Alan (LA) was the son of another close friend. LA was even more impulsive than me. Even more bent on speed and leaving all kinds of careless mistakes in his wake, so much so that one afternoon when we got to the lake he ran full speed down the beach into a row boat, plunging it out 30 feet or more with the barreling force of his body jumping in, only to realize he'd forgotten the oars. He was out there in the middle of the water in a boat, but in his headlong excitement he'd forgotten one thing. In a similar vein to "Why wasn't your hand under my chin?" LA screamed at the rest of us, just then finding a spot to put down our towels, "Where are the oars? Where the hell are the oars?"

Trying to have it all, you never get all of it. You just won't get to choose which parts you don't get. Racing ahead, you don't get more, you just jump through hoops, maybe getting a little charge out of it, and end up with nothing much to show but sore knees from the landings you didn't stick. It is enough, I am telling myself, some days, to spend that precious little time you have for writing doing something anyone can do, copying your notes from yesterday into the computer so you have something coherent to work on and revise tomorrow. That's enough. Race ahead, and you risk going up a creek without paddles. Or ending up with 100 rough drafts, and nothing worth reading. It goes back to what I was saying yesterday, and Eli wrote in about -- not appreciating hard work. It's like "Anyone can practice hard and play the piece fairly well. How about not practicing much at all and playing it super fast, with a few clunky mistakes in there that no one will really notice because it's all flying by in such a mad rush? Can you do that?"

"No," maybe that slow, patient, resilient, hard-working wood chopper inside us will say back someday. "And why would I want to?"


  1. Kinda on topic but this weekend I was hoping to get some writing done--for my blog and for an e-book I'm writing and want to get up on amazon and I didn't do a lick of it, and started to feel bad (my feeling bad is your rushing--I don't really like it but it's so ingrained in my personality/upbringing that 4 years of therapy still wasn't enough to quite shake it). Then I realized that I write all week, so perhaps it's OK if I take a break for two days. In fact, I thought, maybe I should put the computer down and do something that doesn't have to do with the computer at all! But after a losing game of chess with the bf the computer came out again and all of that went out the window....

  2. Just this morning, as I forced myself to do work before checking email (cannot stand that COMPULSION to check) I thought about how the computer I had in my room after college (year I spent at home with my parents) was not hooked up to the internet yet I went on it (to write) as happily and probably more happily than I go to the computer now. Yet I almost get nervous thinking of a computer w/out internet hookup. Seems discombobulating.


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