Writers on Writing #66: Willa Elizabeth Schmidt
Hair as Subversion
What keeps me from writing? A million details of life. Reading the paper, buying groceries, jogging. Visiting friends, drinking coffee, reading. Reading, reading, reading.
Doing dishes, haunting bookstores, surveying the mess on my coffee table, rummaging through piles of books and papers. Shifting contents of those piles to other piles. Watering plants, plucking off dry leaves.
Paying bills. Balancing bank statement. Attempting to diminish stacks of magazines to which I foolishly subscribe. Going to lectures, movies, concerts—watching these on TV. Watching the 10 o'clock news, taking hot bath, foraging for sunflower seeds, chips, salsa, Kudos bars studded with cute, miniature M&Ms of all colors, including blue. Getting to bed at a decent hour.
Surveying my book collection. Sweeping dustballs from edges of the living room, wiping blobs off kitchen floor. Gathering hairs from bathroom sink, floor, and various other surfaces. Hairs, hairs. Yes, hairs.
The best diversions are the simplest, and my favorite—when all else fails and I have forced myself into a chair with freshly sharpened pencil and blank paper before me, when I've shamed myself into banishing from sight any novel or other printed matter that could lure me back into literary passivity, when I've sternly disallowed even the smallest, least drippy item of food (apple, banana, Kudos bar) near me, when it appears there is nothing else I can possibly do at that moment but press graphite to page—is always my hair.
I can study my hair! It's right there, after all. It's long, I needn't go to a mirror or even crane my neck sideways, it's there resting on my shoulder. And how interesting it is, how multicolored and varied when seen up close. Fascinating too to note the alien white threads slowly weaving inroads among the chestnut brown.
How smooth to the touch, that long straight hair, what joy to idiotically run my fingers through its strands, over and over, waiting for the slight crimp or knot or irregularity requiring closer examination and correction.
I do not pull out my hair, as does my friend M., who leaves a harvest of wiry white filament wherever she's been sitting. That strikes me as violent, painful, something akin to gnawing one's fingernails down to the bloody quick. No, mine is a languid, sensual obsession, a comfort in the hypnotic glide of this silky bunch of matter so paradoxically both devoid of its own sensation, yet attached to sentient me.
Hairs do detach, however, and need to be attended to—an annoying result. (M. insists I am definitely loosening, if not actually plucking them out.) Annoying, because when a hair disconnects, I am interrupted in my pattern. I must stop the delightful dragging and roll the detachee into a little ball; this makes it findable when I next get up and can properly dispose of it. Also, once a small sphere has been established it is easy to add to it, making it possible to keep track of all the defectors and ready them for disposal without having to move from chair (or bed or anywhere else) for a long time.
In public places I usually drop these errant products of my obsession into pocket or purse, with the intention of ferreting out the matted clumps when I get home. Sometimes, I confess, I do not bother to stash but instead allow the ultralight tangles to float surreptitiously to floor or carpet, hoping they'll go unnoticed among other dust and debris, retain anonymity in the face of custodial perusal. I worry a bit about my hair falling into the wrong hands, in occultic Rosemary's Baby fashion, say, but doubt this is an issue in my case and so allow laziness (only a fanatic would call it squalor) to prevail. Riding in a car is best; out the window they fly, soon to line the nest of some fortunate bird.
Oh, hair can provide so much entertainment and I could go on and on! But I am no slacker, no Oblomova, I am rather only a dabbler in the realm of excuses and must ultimately return, however reluctantly, to some sort of gainful activity, even if it be writing. And so my hair, that tempting open sweep, that lively shimmering waterfall, must be bound, hobbled, immobilized into a neat, obedient cap. I fetch my brass oblong and bar, which goes by the quaint name of snood pin, the only device capable of containing my glory, and secure the looped, compressed length to the back of my head. Or in a quick, no-nonsense motion that defies all attempt at escape, I capture it in a tight braid. Once complete this construction, a ridged but solid mat, offers little more than an unsatisfying palm pat, leaving fingers free to take up pencil and begin again the hazard-filled journey down the page.
Willa Elizabeth Schmidt's work has appeared in journals including Bellevue Literary Review, CALYX, Kalliope, Potomac Review, and Rosebud. She has been a Glimmer Train fiction finalist and recently served as Associate Editor of Timber Creek Review. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and works as an ESL tutor through the Literacy Network.