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The Vanishing Act

“All morning I lay down sentences, erase them, and try new ones. Soon enough when things go well, the world around me dwindles: the sky out the window, the furious calm of the big umbrella pine ten feet away, the smell of dust falling onto the hot bulb of the lamp. That’s the miracle of writing—when the room, your body, and even time itself cooperate in a vanishing act. Gone are the trucks rumbling outside, the sharp edge of the desk beneath my wrists, the unpaid electric bill back in Idaho. It might seem lonesome but it’s not: soon enough characters drift out of the walls, quiet and watchful, some more distinct than others, waiting to see what will happen to them. And writers come, too. Sometimes every fiction writer I’ve ever admired is there, from Flaubert to Melville to Wharton, all the books I’ve loved, all the novels I’ve wished I were talented enough to write.” — Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

Doerr wrote this while helping to raise toddler twins in a vibrant and new place completely unlike the place where he normally wrote—Rome as you may infer from the title. I can relate to this, as a restless pup bounces about behind me, chewing on seemingly everything I once held dear. Puppies are a wonder, and fill the room with joyous energy. That doesn’t make them helpful for concentration and immersion into a place where I might meet the work at hand.

There is a time and a place for everything. A good part of Doerr’s lovely book is about the experience of being lost in an impossible, chaotic world of new parenthood and a new city. A new puppy may feel both impossible and chaotic, but really it’s simply managing our own time in lieu of the commitments made to that outside of ourselves. I simply give the pup an ice cube to work on and meet my writing somewhere closer to where I was before. Temporary relief, to be sure, but relief nonetheless.

The thing is, the writing is flowing well, despite any distractions I bring in to my world. So well that I feel compelled to open up the spigot and let it flow more freely. The darkness of late October mornings releases this compulsion. Perhaps it’s an underlying fear of missing out when the skies lighten up, but pre-dawn seems to be magic time for the muse in my mad world.

There are times when the work seems to flow, as every productive person has experienced in their work, and times when I know the muse has thrown up her hands and abandoned me for more dedicated writers. Until we commit to something fully, we’re just skating the line between attention and distraction. The vanishing act is elusive, wished-for but often not earned. It’s on the other side of comfort and distraction, awaiting only the fully-committed. I’ve learned to say a silent plea to myself each morning: may it be me this day.

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