I used to write every day. That’s the advice most successful writers give to struggling writers. In This Year You Write Your Novel Walter Mosley asserts, “It doesn’t matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you.”
Compelling and true, how much slips away in the span of a day or even an hour. Yet, no matter how hard any of us try, Walter Mosley included, there is no way to stop this certitude of loss. We cannot write as fast as we live. Thus, the struggle for a writer is not to stop all loss, but rather to discover what is most important to preserve and to retain that discovery long enough to explore it through writing.
Two days ago, Ambrose loosened his first tooth on a half-eaten chocolate rabbit just minutes after I brought him home from kindergarten. I had 15 minutes between the time I got done teaching and his kindergarten pick-up. It is nearing the end of the semester, and I had a full bag of papers to grade. But I left those alone. Instead I used those 15 minutes to call an opthamologist to set up an eye exam because he had failed his vision test at school. I also checked the calendar to see where he was going to play his first soccer game. I don’t know anything about soccer, and we had spent the past few days going back and forth to a sporting goods store to make sure he had the right shoes and shin guards and socks so that he would look like the rest of the kids and so he would be adequately protected. He howled when his tooth came loose, “something horrible’s happened,” he kept repeating as I tried to decipher what was wrong. He had been eating that chocolate rabbit for three days; the creature in his hand was missing its ears and its eyes and part of its foot. When I realized that Ambrose’s tooth was loose I thought I had been pushed past my limit of acceptable change. But there he was, afraid, and so I sat him on my lap for an hour and told him stories about the tooth fairy and about growing up. When he calmed, I got out paper and we drew what we imagined the tooth fairy to look like. This is Ambrose’s picture. She doesn’t have wings because she has a massive butterfly wand instead that acts as a helicopter and takes her wherever she needs to go:
The orange rectangles at the bottom are Ambrose’s baby teeth. He explained, “I drew them there so that we will always remember.”
As I write this, more than 48 hours after this happening, I know I have already forgotten a great deal about this episode. Now that I’ve written down some of what I can remember, some details have become more permanent. Without writing this today, I might have thought about this day a year from now without remembering the confluence of events—how the soccer preparation and the opthamologist appointment heightened my anxiety about his loose tooth. Yet I can say with all certainty that with or without this blog post I would remember those orange rectangles at the bottom of his drawing and Ambrose’s assertion that he drew them so that “we will always remember.”
Such a relatively small thing, and perhaps something that sounds like Ambrose parroting a cliché. But, since the death of his father last year, the notion of remembering is very acute and clear in our minds. To remember in an active, tangible way is to strip away almost everything so that what remains is illuminated. Was Ambrose thinking of his Papa when he drew those teeth? When he said that phrase?
Of course I didn’t ask. It is enough for a five-year-old to loosen a tooth after a full day of kindergarten. Of course, I was thinking of Matthew, and of course this is why Ambrose’s statement made me ache past the normal ache of seeing a loved one grow so quickly. No matter how many days pass, I will remember this moment in this way because it was sharp enough to stick.
I hadn’t planned on writing anything about Ambrose’s tooth in this blog post. It’s late and I’m tired, and I lay down on the floor with my laptop to write a brief assertion about my writing plans for the month of May. I’ve told almost everyone who has seen me that I’m going to get a year’s worth of writing done in May. Before Matthew passed away I wrote every day, but that is not possible anymore. That is not me being lazy or undisciplined. It is actually not possible. Yet, during the whole month of May, Ambrose will be in school from 9-3:30 and I will not be teaching or prepping to teach. I have a mess of a short story collection that I’m set on pulling together all in this one month. I keep hearing myself ask myself, “Is that a crazy plan?” And I keep hearing myself say, “Yes, that is a crazy plan.” And then I tell my plan outloud to someone else. I am amassing witnesses so that I feel responsible for the plan. I am, if nothing else, a very responsible person.
The thing that worries me the most about my plan is that I haven’t had those other 334 days to write. I have written a few poems here and there, and revised a few more, but that’s the extent of it. So many writers make the comparison between writing and exercise; if you don’t do it every day then the muscles atrophy. Yet, when I wrote every day, I never had the intense desire to write like I do now. I think of May and I think of writing as an immense privilege rather than a job. I am grateful for writing in a way I have never been before. Some of me worries that too much is lost, but some of me also feels an extreme clarity for what I am taking with me.