Writers on Writing #83: Amy Scharmann
The Essential Swamp
I don’t believe in heaven, but I believe I’m being watched. During a bike ride, on my favorite trail that winds its way out to Payne’s Prairie, the trees intertwined over my head like pairs of hands, holding me there. It was humid. There was a pollen alert. I sneezed again and again. Four butterflies kept speed next to me, moving in to kiss each other, then separating, kissing, separating; all I could see was the shape they made in my periphery—a collapsible box, moving in and out. I thought to myself, “Pay attention, this is good shit.” My shoulders hurt from their usual rigid position, balled toward my neck, expecting the worst out of a beautiful spring Florida Friday. I thought through possible ways to relax and let in the creative energy that I was sure would wrap my worries in dough and bake them into place. As a fiction-writer, I hope to create something significant, something that promotes change, that affects another person, anything to prove I’m not wasteful, that my recent request for a day off from my paying job wasn’t completely moronic. I want to write a story that means something, without being too emotional, without giving too much away. Good luck with that, I heard the bugs say.
In an interview by Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace said, “Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naïve or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.”
What writer, especially the writer that feels suffocated by what she or he could say and constricted by the truth that she or he probably won’t say it, wouldn’t pause with curiosity, doubt, maybe a little bit of shame, at DFW’s words? However, an emotional pause all too often leads to a quick exit in order to avoid any true feelings that might manifest as a result of meaningful thoughts. Because that’s not clever. Sentiment is absolutely not clever. It is not a sheet, a quilt, a tarp I can hide behind. So my typical egotistical brain snips the route that carries sentiment. Goodbye, sentiment. I’m a writer, yes, but barely so—only backed by five serious years of trying—and I clunk around in these writer-boots my feet only half-fill, hoping that merely walking in them, nothing else, will lead to a good fit, a reason for wearing them. But I never tell the reader how I truly feel. Absolutely not. And it’s excruciating not to, but, in my corrupted modern opinion, it would be equally, if not more, excruciating to tell the truth.
My problem used to be the thinking that people cared what I had to say. My problem now is thinking that people don’t give a shit. The second is closer to the truth. And knowing that, what the hell is the point? Even now, writing this, I’m cutting the heart of out thoughts before they mature—getting it when it’s young, a tiny, flickering baby-bulb of a feeling, of many feelings—because such feelings are irrelevant, no one cares, and I have a headache. But isn’t the frightening truth of readers’ apathy what stems the question writers so often hear, the question that makes our feelers squirm: “Why do you write?” It’s what so many people want to know, including writers themselves.
My first semester as an MFA candidate at the University of Florida, David Leavitt assigned us Joy Williams’ essay “Why I Write.” He’d heard Joy Williams read the essay at the 2009 Tin House Summer Writers’ Conference. He said that she had the whole room. He said they were all like, “Well, shit.” After reading it myself, I understood what he meant. For me, it was in the closing line: “The writer writes to serve […] not himself and not others, but that cold elemental grace that knows us.”
That stuck me like a needle straight out of the freezer. Right. There.
On my bike ride, there was a turn off to an overlook, so I took it. The path encircled a bench where you could sit and watch the prairie exist. I sat. The wind shot out from a vast expanse of swamp that didn’t change. In fact, by definition, a swamp is an uncultivated ground where water collects, and if water collects, it isn’t moving, it’s collecting, festering, being there. And yet I still enjoyed looking at it, felt peace and awe in its presence, because it’s a true thing of nature. It is a swamp. A swamp is what it is. And there’s no disputing it. And so, is it possible, I wonder, for a person to create the exact same effect just by being exactly who they are?
As I sat there alone, nature put its relaxed hands over my ears so I could hear nothing but my own desire to create. It’s a realm many artists experience before something happens inside or outside their head that fuels their muse, pushes them into the temporary insanity of believing the connection they’re having with whatever source they’re connecting to will result in an output of work that matters. I pushed out my chest, leading with my heart, waiting for it.
But this uninterrupted time with nature was interrupted. The tick-tick-tick-tick of a bike invaded the left side of my creative zone. Since my bag and I were taking up the entire bench, the blobby person in the corner of my eye stared, hinting with his unwillingness to keep moving—he wanted to sit. I finally looked over. He was wearing a cyclist uniform and a helmet. This was a serious work out for him. He had to have been tired.
“Do you want to sit?” I asked.
“Please,” he said, in a voice that sounded as if it walked on a pillow, feathers, anything soft.
We sat in silence for almost a minute, and I wondered if this was truly happening, because how long can two strangers really sit in silence without one of them fleeing from the awkwardness?
He finally said, “There’re all these little things floating in the air.”
I nodded. I’d noticed them, too—little cotton puffs, or something. That was his conversation starter, and it worked. We exchanged names and ages (indirectly) and I honestly wanted him to go away. He was a kid—sophomore in college—and nice, I mean really nice. He asked if I was a student, and I explained that I was finished with graduate school and my fiancé was almost done. He asked what we planned to do. I told him I didn’t have a clue.
“Well,” he said, “I’m majoring in building construction. If I end up hating it, I’m moving to Costa Rica. If I end up liking it, I’m still moving to Costa Rica.”
He wasn’t afraid to look at me when he said this. After chatting for a while about surface topics, he said he needed to go study. I saluted him.
“Oh,” he said, “keep me in your thoughts next week. I’m turning twenty-one.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Well, don’t do what I did.” I told him I called an ambulance on myself in a blackout. “I don’t know how heavy a drinker you are, but be careful.”
He laughed and kicked the dirt. “I’ve actually never drank before.”
“Oh,” I said, and stopped there. I realized this conversation had held many “ohs.”
He told me his mom and sister were coming to Gainesville from his hometown in Sarasota and taking him to dinner. I told him that was really great, and meant it. It had taken me until recently to realize just how great something like that is. I wondered then if the reason he chose not to drink until he turned twenty-one was because that’s the rule. He followed the rules. And he’s moving to Costa Rica no matter what. It was completely interesting to me because he seemed to know who he was and how to be true to himself. That’s what I believe makes good writing—being exactly as you are, telling the truth as you know it, no matter what experiences you have behind you. Marilynne Robison discussed this idea in her essay on beauty that appeared in Tin House’s 50th issue: “For me, this is a core definition on beauty: that it is both rigorous and dynamic and that it somehow bears a deep relationship to truth.” As the young cyclist pedaled away, I was wrapped with an illusion that I knew him, though I didn’t know him at all. I thought about writing this essay in that moment and wanted to center it on this cyclist’s character, but I realized that if I wanted to really comment on something, I would have to be a little more familiar. I am thankful for the exchange, however, because it got me to look at myself. It got me thinking about truth.
Alone again at the swamp, I thought about my truth, the experiences that make me who I am. But how does a person determine whether or not an event is notable or life-changing? I went to Italy with my mother last summer. She has co-workers in northern and southern Italy, so we never had to pay for lodging, allowing for a two-week comfortable trip. Near the end, my mom wanted to show me Ravello, a small medieval town on the Amalfi Coast. Ravello is home to the Villa Chiambroni, which has a view known as “Infinity,” a terrace that overlooks lemon groves, vineyards, rooftops miles below, and the widest expanse of the Mediterranean and the cliffs surrounding it a person can see without being in a plane or helicopter. And I stood there after being blindly led to the very edge. Once my mother’s hands were removed from my face, I felt as if my own breath moved under my feet, suspending my body, creating a feeling of unease and relaxation and utter wonderment all at once. That night, my mother and I stayed up laughing together about nothing and everything. We talked about how love changes as you age, and how each year, we see the world differently than we thought we’d see it. My love and appreciation for my relationship with my mother beat against my bones. I was also reminded how much my mother loved me, how connected we were. I’d gotten sober in January of that year, and my mother arranged the entire trip to exclude situations that involved alcohol. That changed me more than the overlook—developing a special place of gratitude for my mother.
If I could look at a timeline that had large stone markers for life events, the most notable events might be: 1) getting married at twenty-one years of age because I wanted to prove I was a responsible person who did responsible things (and, at the time, being raised in Kansas, I thought responsible people got married as soon as possible, committed to another person), followed by separation and divorce a year later (I can’t really explain it other than I was acutely messed up—the guilt occasionally still bites); 2) stopping drinking because I had a problem stopping drinking; and 3) agreeing to marry again because I found the love you can barely talk about without breaking apart, but this is after a year of blustery relationship atmosphere as a direct result of said drinking. Yes, only three notable events so far, but they all imparted pieces to whatever pixilated screen I see through, new feelings and layers to feelings I already had. And see, I’m communicating the truth a little more than I wish to, and it still isn’t very much.
I’m afraid of tapping into what sets me apart. It’s safer and unbearable to coast on the surface and feel that misery of self-ignorance. So the pressure of grace will have to continue to wait for each of my small, human realizations, wait for me to serve, to be productive to the stream of it all, in some small insignificant way, and until then, it will starve beside me. And every day I worry that grace will give up on me. And that’s really it. It’s the guilt that keeps me writing, the guilt of still not knowing who I am.
Amy Scharmann currently resides in Gainesville, Florida, but will soon be moving to Long Beach, California, with her fiancé. Her work has appeared in the Flash Fridays series at Tin House, New Orleans Review, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, Bodega, and elsewhere. She tweets @AmyScharmann.