All this happened, more or less...

My name is G and these are the true stories of my adventures.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

About Writing

People torture themselves in crazy, brutal, wonderful ways. I have a friend who recently rode a bicycle over 3,800 miles -- from Virginia Beach to Oregon -- just for the adventure of it. My roommate spent the last few months drinking an obscene number of protein shakes, tempting melanoma at the tanning salon, and lifting weights every night so that he could pull off a convincing Ultimate Warrior for Halloween. I also just met this guy who does Ironman triathlons; ergo, though awesome, he is also clearly insane.

My exquisite masochism is writing. It is through writing that I become utterly vulnerable. That Walter Wellesey Smith quote -- "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." -- that is writing for me. Bleeding. It is painful and draining and invasive. And yet I am irresistibly drawn to it. At three o'clock in the morning, I sit in bed and type things that no one will ever read, pieces that strip me and break me open and empty me out. And at six o'clock in the morning, I delete them for fear that someone, somewhere, someday might see them. Might see me, all broken and naked like that without even a cute pair of shoes on. Yikes.

At this point in my life, I typically write ten to fifteen pages a week. Of these, maybe 98% are a combination of lesson plans, essays for my MA classes, letters of recommendation, and work-related nonsense (like emails about who's teaching The Scarlet Letter when and who's driving whom to some up-coming conference). That leaves about one page out of fifty that I actually want to write and that gives me that delicious rush of intellectual adrenaline.

I got into teaching because I thought it would be an avenue for leading young people to this same passion -- for entrancing them with the magic of words, the powerful addiction of stories. In some ways, this has been true. My job is rich and rewarding. I love it. But I have felt, more so recently, that the greatest price of teaching writing is that I rarely have time or energy anymore to write.

But I am not old enough yet to have regrets, and since my birthday is coming soon, I am giving myself a present: time. For writing. And permission to be vulnerable.

As an example for you, dear reader, here is a piece I wrote (and recently polished but have never before published) about my first night in Japan:

Lion Lantern


The tatami bites lightly into my skin, etching uniform red grooves across my shoulder blades, along the uneven ridge of spine, and down the meat of my out-stretched legs. I lie long and wide, a little castrated Vitruvian, watching the beads of sweat well up on my bare stomach, glisten, quiver, and slip noiselessly to the floor. My ribs heave. Around my head, a riot of dark curls twists into a damp halo and slowly soaks the clean, tight straw. I strain to listen, hoping to catch the shuffle of a foot or the click of a chopstick through the paper-thin walls, but there is only a vast silence beneath the coursing of blood through my own ears, the swishing rhythm of my own breath.

My damp t-shirt and jeans, shed the moment I was alone, are tossed over the solitary chair in the corner. I thought at first of running them through the washing machine, but a quick glance at the dials discouraged me; not a word is in English. Of course, even if I knew how to turn the machine on, I have no detergent, no soap. I could get my clothes wetter but not cleaner. Instead I had stripped them off, thrown them over the chair, and gotten in the shower. The water rinsed away the sweat and dust I’d gathered on my two-hour trudge from the train station, but it did nothing to relieve the trembling in my limbs. Chilled and dripping, I stepped gingerly out into the living room and realized I had no towel, no clean or dry clothes. That was when I decided to lie down on the floor.

Urban Ricefields

I’ve been here — on the living room floor — for over an hour. Maybe two. Dying rays of gold play furtively along the blades of rice grass outside the open window. It must be about eight o’clock. Maybe later. I don’t really know what time the sun sets in Kansai.

“Kansai,” I whisper the word aloud, half under my breath. “Kan - sa - iiii,” I stretch it so it covers my whole tongue. It certainly sounds far from home. “I live in Kansai, the western half of Honshu,” I chirp to myself, trying to force nonchalance into a phrase that still sounds like something I’m making up. The island name, Honshu, curdles and clumps in my mouth. I try to chop the “u” short like the Japanese do, but it keeps coming out “Hon - shooo” and I feel like a stupid gaijin, a foreigner, an outsider.

Which is exactly what I am, I suppose.


I stare at the ceiling and do some quick calculations. The company sent a Kiwi to pick me up at the train station this afternoon and show me to this apartment. My apartment, which doesn't yet feel like mine. Before arriving here, we had dropped off another new recruit and then gotten a bit lost, which I estimate doubled the distance we had to walk. The station is perhaps an hour east of here on foot. We passed a grocery store en-route, but it’s maybe forty-five minutes away, and I have to keep in mind that whatever I buy, I will have to carry forty-five minutes back. It’s possible that there is a closer grocery west of here, but it’s getting dark and everything in that direction is still undiscovered country. The chewy airline chicken breast was the last thing I ate. That was… sixteen, maybe eighteen hours ago. I should have asked the Kiwi to stop for food.

Suddenly my musings grind to a halt. The Kiwi. What was his name? I don’t remember. I try to replay the moment when he approached me outside the train station — khaki trousers, white shirt, open collar, loosened blue neck-tie. Cropped ginger hair. Green eyes? Grey? He must have introduced himself. I'll probably never see him again, but at the moment, he’s the only person I know in Japan. And I have no idea what his name is.

I force myself up onto my elbows. The last rays of sun stretch in through the window and glow red on my shins. I wonder if leaving the curtain open will be enough to wake me in the morning. Forty-five minutes to walk tomorrow for food. A few more to the train station and the city center where I should be able to buy a watch, laundry detergent, and a towel. Maybe twenty hours before my luggage and my futon should be delivered. Two and a half days until my company orientation in Osaka. One week before I start teaching. Seven thousand miles between me and anyone whose name I know. No plane ticket home.

I lie back down and fold my hands beneath my head. In the last twenty-four hours, I have severed myself from the realities of my life. I close my eyes and let exhaustion wash over me, drowning out the gnawing ache in my stomach. For the first time in my life, I am completely alone and utterly adrift.