The last couple of mornings I've been going to Starbucks at 4:30AM to write. Mid-morning I take a break and then write for six to eight more hours somewhere else. Before the sun came up this morning I was already several pages into a piece that feels like a mess, a great big jumble of disconnected words that don't entertain, inform, move the story along or help at all. The problem is that I need something there. I have to tell that part of the story. But what I have sounds contrived. When I read it I feel like a fraud. I wrote better stuff in sixth grade English.
There is a beauty and an energy about my grandfather's story. Through his one life can be seen the horrors of black life in the South and the very essence of courage. I want to get out of the way so that his story and the story of Greenwood can pass through me.
How do I take my heap of empty words and transform them into something that feels light and effortless?
This morning in my little spot at the local Starbucks, I took a break from revising to spend some time with a blank page. I wrote the following piece.
Writing for me is like finding a field of hard, dry land that’s full of deeply embedded rocks. In the distance there’s a beautiful mountain that sparkles when the sun sets. It occurs to me that this would be an ideal place for a plush, thick green lawn, the kind of lawn that your feet sink into when you walk across it. Somehow I know that one day a child will sit on this lawn and pull the grass out in chunks. The beautiful grass will fill their tiny, fat hands, sticking out curiously from between their fingers. This child will dig and dig, but never find anything but green.
For inspiration I go to a garden center, grab a hunk of emerald green grass that someone else has grown and I stuff it into my pocket. I return to the field and go over it with a tool to loosen the dense dirt and rocks. I think this will take an hour. It takes two weeks. When I’m finished I feel exhausted. I’m convinced that my original idea was completely idiotic. I look over the field prepared to give up, to do something else with the limited amount of time I have on this earth.
But there, in the distance I see it. A few slivers of grass have fallen from my pocket. Their green is even more vibrant and beautiful against the backdrop of the mountain that sparkles when the sun sets. I cannot abandon this work. Who will take it up if I leave it behind?
Again, I believe it can be done.
I survey the land. The ground is loose but it's covered in parched dirt. I feed the land, going over it again and again to develop a rich soil that can nourish the green grass I'm dreaming of. I think this will take two weeks. It takes two months.
Finally, I have rich, life sustaining soil. I plant my grass. I do not have seeds. I must plant each blade of grass one at a time. I do. I plant them as close together as I can. I think this will take two months. It takes nine.
When I get to the end of my field I excitedly turn around to survey my beautiful work only to find that my lush green lawn looks like the head of a bald man with a few stray hairs. My lawn is sporadic at best.
I am heartbroken.
Exhausted, bent over by doubt and regret, I gather what little energy I have left and I go over the lawn once more. I plant many more blades of grass, delicately placing each one in the soft, willing soil.
It’s taken all the energy and hope I can muster to go over this ground again. This time it has to work. I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m not finished. I must move on to other things.
With anxiety and fear I again turn to survey my work. Now it looks like the hair on the head of a doll. There’s a lot more grass, but something about the lawn is still wrong. It’s not rich and plush, but it is there. Every few feet I see a patch of beauty, but these patches are not connected and in between them the ground looks lost and barren.
I want to give up. The scale is even. On one side is the weight of the time I’ve invested and on the other is the weight of the time I may still have to invest before I’ll be done.
I know that if I walk away I will always wonder what my lawn could have been.
Again, I plant and again I survey. There is still not enough. I’m getting older.
When I set out on this endeavor years ago I thought I was a natural grass planter. I thought that a rich, emerald, glittery and magically green lawn would pour out of me like water from a faucet. But it’s not. I have no magic. I have time. I have hours. I have commitment. I have dirt and a few beautiful blades of grass.
All that keeps me going is the hope and the vision of what this lawn might be if I don’t give up. No one else will plant it, it has to be me.
Long ago I was a person who noticed a field. Now, I am an obsessive planter of grass.
Is this lawn my prison or my purpose?
I am exhausted, wind blown, and sunburned. I stand to survey the field. Then I write.