Writers on Writing #123: Naomi Washer
It’s Christmas in New England. I am home visiting from Chicago where I am studying writing in graduate school. My mother is reminding me of my earliest essayistic tendencies:
In grade school I was in a program that periodically excused me from math class to write plays. But I never wrote them. I remember the folder full of notes—brainstorms of names, plot points, possible conflicts. But the play itself—in complete form—never got written.
My teacher told my mother that I was the sort of person, the sort of artist, who saw a project as complete as soon as I had envisioned it.
(Enter: notebooks and notebooks and notebooks of ideas toward dance pieces in college which I never even begin to choreograph).
My fourth grade teacher tells my mother during a conference that I’d completed a creative writing project but never turned it in. She found it lying on a table in the back of the room.
This one takes place in graduate school, not grade school, but it’s not much different, so move with me here:
I’m at a classmate’s apartment with my fellow students and our professor where we’ve gathered to share our work in a final reading. There’s drinking involved, and because I’ve not yet decided which portion of my essay to read, I end up going last, by which time everyone is drunk.
I read some sections from a sprawling essay in the form of a monologue, a re-envisioning of material I’ve been working on all semester, material that is vulnerable and shows me in all the key, messy, pathetic lights I can never seem to crawl out from.
I am the only one still sober, and I’m starting to feel quiet and a little sad and like I want to get home, because everyone is celebrating the end of the semester but I’m reading this essay-monologue, which means I’m performing, and if there’s anything I know about performing it’s that the real you comes slipping through at the most unexpected moments.
I finish reading and the professor sets down her wine glass and leans back, ready to talk.
She stretches her arm out in front of her with the fingers of her hand spread apart and moves them around like she’s sifting through a pile of dirt.
“This is Naomi’s process,” she says.
“Naomi fucks around,” she says. “She fucks around, and then she steps way, way back, and looks at what she’s done from far away.”
My classmates stare at me, because my classmates are drunk and drunk people never think they are staring. I start crying a little because I want to own her comment, her compliment, I want to say yes, you’re damn right I fuck around, I fuck around on the page until I find what I never knew I wanted, what I never knew was wanting from far away. But I do not say this. I start to cry a little because I want to be addressed in the first person but I’ve written a monologue.
In college my professors found me frustrating because I couldn’t settle, I could never decide, I never stayed long enough in the studio or ran my actors through that scene one more time.
I’d talk to my dance professors about my acting, my acting professors about my dancing, my writing professors about my acting and my dancing.
On my own, I went walking.
I lived in a house down the road from the college, a road that curved and dipped with no street lights, and on the nights when the moon was full I would read while walking, scripts and essays and poems, and there were rarely any cars, and I’d look up from the page and find that I’d wandered, without realizing it, from the tall grass on the side of the road to the middle of the street—book in hand.
I’d look up and realize I was there.
And I’d just stand.
I couldn’t understand how I’d done it, how I thought I’d been diligently clinging to the side of the road but had instead been led, or unconsciously led myself, to wander down the middle.
I live in a city now, a city with a grid system and four diagonal streets cutting through which everyone who lives here can name.
It took a long time for me to learn this grid system. The friends I made when I moved here assured me that as long as I knew the grid I’d never get lost. They said this to comfort me, knowing I’d moved here from the mountains. But I resisted this information; I resisted the grid. And I got plenty lost. I still get lost when I find myself on one of those four diagonal streets. I get lost on diagonals now because I have adjusted my body to the grid and the grid contains me.
I don’t like to read new releases when they’re new. I like to read them later, when I am ready for them, when some element of their content has floated its way into my sphere. I don’t allow forced interruptions to my inter-genre, inter-century reading list. What I do allow, encourage, seek out even, are the books one finds by chance—recommended by an acquaintance, found in a cluttered store on lunch break, and especially, books exchanged as gifts.
It’s Christmas in Chicago and I am exchanging gifts with a great friend who I’d convinced to move to my neighborhood in the city to pursue writing, because it’s what she wants to do.
I’ll call her Rebecca, because I do.
One night Rebecca comes over and we exchange books and the book she gives me is A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. I flip through the pages and say yes, I’ve heard of this. My Rebecca is trying to find a few words to describe why she thinks I will love it, but she doesn’t have to because I am flipping through this copy that once was hers, my Rebecca’s, and she’s marked passages that cut into me deeply, which is why she is my great friend.
At the house on the road that curved and dipped and rose, I made a study of my full-moon-middle-of-the-street wanderings. I’d walk the half mile from school to the house, reading, looking down at my feet and the page and the tall grass and wildflowers grazing my legs by the edge of the asphalt. I’d congratulate myself for staying in line.
And still, I’d look up at the moon when I got near the wooden stake in the front lawn, the stake that glowed in the moonlight and bore the three-digit number of our address. I’d see that the stake was much closer to me than it should be, considering I was on the left side of the road. But I wasn’t—I’d look up at the moon, and down at my feet, and see that I had wandered yet again.
It’s late at night now, and I meant to go to bed at least an hour ago.
But there’s something very important I need to get at right now about this accidental night wandering I made a study of when I was young and lived more in my head than in my body.
But I can’t stay up all night to write anymore the way I used to.
These days I need routine, I need free mornings with coffee and a robe.
Essays are full of the hard work of it—mucking around with your hands sifting through the dirt, your fingers scraping sharp rocks, bleeding a little.
I like an essay that bleeds a little. Not the tiny complaining violin, but the trickle of blood running down your friend’s knee when she comes back into the house, and you ask her what happened, and she smiles at you and says, What do you mean?
And then she follows your eyes down, and she sees what you see, and she says, How did that happen? I was only planting.
Naomi Washer's essays and dance films have appeared in The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, & Thought, Homonym, con•text, Interim: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Crab Fat Magazine, The Boiler, Split Lip Magazine, and other journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Columbia College Chicago, where she earned her MFA in nonfiction. She is editor-in-chief and publisher of Ghost Proposal. More can be found online at www.naomiwasher.com