How I Almost Started Writing: Chicago

I am on the Blue Line. I just arrived but it feels like I’ve already been here for a week. I should be reading, but I’m fumbling with my phone.

I thought I’d take the train instead of a cab, that I might lose myself a bit in the morning rhythm of the city. Instead, I’m listening to old voicemail.

“It’s just Chicago. Fly in, fly out. One day. Please!”

Any crafty salesman can get a foot in the door, it’s the beggar who closes the deal.

I force myself to read. For some reason, when I am reading in public places I always suspect that people are looking at me. Maybe that’s the only reason I brought the book, to be looked at. No, it wasn’t that. The book had promise, a promise that kept me going eagerly through the first chapter, the promise of a serious book.

The more I read, the less the author seems to care.

The story devolves into one emotionless scene after another: look at this; look at that; here is something you didn’t expect; here is something obscene; here is yet another thing which is completely unnecessary. It’s like being force-fed vacation slides. The book becomes nothing more than a pulpy mass moving through space toward its inevitable and flaccid conclusion. Each sentence, every word, devoid of potency.

It’s not my favorite…

I can see the lake now, but I am busy with the dust jacket picture of the author. I take out a pen and draw a thin, curling mustache on his dour lip.

“There’s an ass,” says the man standing beside my seat.

I nod and the man turns away, which is not exactly what I wanted. I wanted him to attach some clarifying remark, such as:

“I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter.”

– or –

“I saw that ass on TV.”

The man is a Silver Fox. He is tall and well-dressed. His blue suit is of a superior cut. This suggests many things about the man, but does not necessarily recommend him as an avid reader. The identity of the ass remains murky.

I am at the hotel. Everything is dark. The bellman is dressed in black. His face is blank.

There are more black-clad stewards sulking in the lobby. They stand motionless behind the front desk, flanked by granite columns. Long streams of purple velour snake down the columns, which are covered in hieroglyphics. The dome above glows a disconcerting shade of red.

A sign for the conference calls beckons me deeper into the hotel.

Orange sconces flicker against blackened walls. The walls have the texture of steel. At the far end of the floor, a staircase leads up to the grand ballroom. A stout balustrade rings the space above.

The Cheerful Woman greets me at the registration desk. She looks up my name and hands me a badge. I take the badge off the lanyard and used the clip to affix the card to my shirt. The Cheerful Woman frowns when I drop the lanyard on the table.

“You’re supposed to wear the lanyard.”

The lanyard lies between us, coiled and still. The name of the conference repeated over and over in fat, white letters on what was really just a black shoelace. The Cheerful Woman’s face turns grim. It seems unkind to leave a shoelace before the Cheerful Woman, to reject her so completely.

I nod and gently take up the lanyard in my hands.

I am watching the Smiling Man. He is giving a speech by satellite to locations all over the globe. He talks about many things but what I can’t get over is the fact that he isn’t wearing socks. He’s dressed in a suit, a nice suit in fact. Nicer than any suit I will ever own. Nicer than the blue suit worn by the Silver Fox on the train… And yet, he isn’t wearing socks.

There’s really no reason for the camera to reveal the fact the Smiling Man isn’t wearing socks. They could zoom in on his face rather than show him at a distance, reclining in his chair.

The Smiling Man speaks of many things which mean nothing to the customers of the Smiling Man’s company. In the end, he waves good-bye and smiles. The Regional Sales Director takes the stage. He smiles less than the Smiling Man, but then he is wearing socks.

I am doodling on a pad of paper provided by the hotel. I draw little bats flapping around the logo of the hotel and a graveyard in the bottom right corner of the page. I write the names of the Smiling Man and the Regional Sales Director on a matching pair of tombstones.

The man sitting beside me laughs so I give him the paper.

I am sketching a villa. I begin with a graceful line of windows. The windows peek out above a tall hedge. Beside the villa, there is a winding garden filled with wispy perennials. Short fruit trees with knotted trunks frame the rear of the garden. As an afterthought, I add a terrace, knitting the old flagstones between a tangle of underbrush.

An invisible sun casts the dry light of late summer on the scene. The villa is a pale shade of lavender, the trim whitish-grey. Scrub-covered hills, brown and distant, rise up in the background. I add a rake to the garden.

My eyes are closed. I am listening for the sound of birds.

People move slowly toward the buffet, trying not to appear too eager for lunch. I head for the door. I’m almost free but out of nowhere my sales rep appears and cuts off my escape.

“Hey! You made it! Enjoying the conference?”

“Not bad, but I just got a call.”

“Oh yes, duty always calls! Well, why don’t you come and meet someone real quick?”

“I’d love to, but…”

“No, problem. Really! He’s right over there. It’ll only take a second.”

He points to a small cluster of people frozen in the gloom at the foot of the stairs. I cave and allow myself to be led away by the elbow.

The Formal Man watches us descend. He has black hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. He does not smile or nod, but I feel welcomed into his company by some strange shifting of his eyes. This is not the man I am supposed to meet. I am supposed to meet the Golden Boy, but he is pacing in the shadows behind the Formal Man, so it appears that meeting the Golden Boy consists of speaking to the Formal Man who is actually a consultant to the Golden Boy, though he himself preferred the title of Corporate Nanny.

The Golden Boy is short and blond. He wears fashionable clothes, accessorized by an expensive cellphone crammed into his left ear. The phone flashes blue and red, nearly in time with his continuous, rapid fire speech.

Once, in passing, the Golden Boy emerges from the darkness. He casts his face up to the ceiling. He sighs and shakes his head. Then he starts up again, tossing out jargon and channeling a series of new age business gurus one after the other.

“Is he always like that?”

The Formal Man smiled and leaned towards me.

“No one really wants to take his calls. Half the time, he just calls people at random to see if they miss him.”

I trade cards with the Formal Man. Instantly, the Golden Boy materializes. He jams a card into my hand and points to the flashing phone. He shrugs and vanishes into the shadows.

Behind the wire-rimmed spectacles, the Formal Man raises his eyes. He smiles.

“The kid’s on the bubble and he doesn’t even know it.”

It is raining. I am in a café across the street from the hotel. I have a cup of coffee. I pretend to read the wretched book.

A woman enters the café. Her black hair falls down around her shoulders. I’m going to romanticize this moment too much if I hold onto it, but I can’t help it. I pull out the picture of the villa. I see her moving across the terrace. She wears a simple yellow dress.

The light is so bright. I can barely stand to look at the devastated beauty of the rough countryside. I want my life to stop moving forward.

Miles away the sea rises and falls like molten lead. The wind picks up. The woman leaves with a tray of coffees, and the imaginary summer disappears as she steps off my flagstone terrace and into the rain of West Adams Street. I sketch her figure quickly.

I am in a room without windows. This is a private meeting. The low ceiling presses down on a corral of fold-up tables.

We speak in echoes, responding automatically to each other for almost an hour, promising things we both knew to be false. When the meeting is over, we agree to nothing except that we will share a cab to the airport.

In the taxi, the man pulls up his legs and places his feet against the window. He curls himself around a little device and checks his email. The man digs his thumbs into the keyboard. The meter starts.

We arrive at the airport. As I get out of the cab, the man calls after me. He is holding the picture of the villa.

I see now that it was a mistake to draw the figure of the woman looking away.

How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.

14 thoughts on “How I Almost Started Writing: Chicago

  1. @Joel 🙂 I think as long as I pretend it isn’t writing I can do it. Once I acknowledge the fact that it is real writing, the whole thing goes to hell.

  2. @Jamie: first – Re: your reply to Joel’s comment – I think you have a problem similar to what I had to (and occasionally still have to but less often) work through. Some people call it “hardening of the categories.” Whether it’s due to over-professionalizing or over-romanticizing the life or the work or the output of “real writers” and your expectations of or over-romanticizing yourself as a writer the result is the same, you excuse yourself from taking the final and you validate the voices in your head screaming “you loser, who did you think you were.”

    second – I have struggled to concisely put into words my impression of this piece. It is very different from the others in the series. In those there has been the allusion of not all being well in the background but the focus of the essays has seemed a deliberate turn of the lens on the best, the beautiful, the socially acceptable interesting parts. This piece makes no such effort. There is not the ripple of the underlying but unacknowledged thread of tension here, instead there is one bold stroke after another of unapologetic seething venom being spat upon every contact the narrator encounters.

    At its core the piece conveys the tension of modern people – stability forces them to go places and do certain things but only they can choose whether to be present or not. Some escape through a veil of busyness, or the illusion of self-importance, or apparent demands, or boredom, or meeting physical needs; others through daydreams and mulling the “what-ifs.” Being present is what matters otherwise we keep doing things that are toxic to us and our families. I hope you have figured out that creating the illusion of stability by continuing in a job you can do without being present will eventually kill your creativity too. (But sometimes you can change a toxic culture by running against the current and insisting on presence.)

    Okay, this is turning into a post instead of a comment.

  3. @Deb Lacking the courage to “face” being a writer is pretty common. I struggled with it daily for a long time and still do on occasion. I’ve thought of mothballing this site many times because the name is somewhat negative, but I’m kinda of attached to it now. So, I’ll keep on fighting the good fight here. 🙂

    I agree with your comments on this piece. It was difficult for me to firm this one up in the same way that I did with the others. Obviously, the one image of beauty in the entire piece is the vision of the villa, the escape from the moment. But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s an escape to a fantasy land that doesn’t really exist while the all-too real world is right there boring the crap out of me.

    “I hope you have figured out that creating the illusion of stability by continuing in a job you can do without being present will eventually kill your creativity too.”

    Love that sentence. I’ve definitely figured this one out, just can’t figure out the next step to stop it from happening. 🙂

  4. @Jamie – Whoa; I did not mean that you lack the courage to face being a writer and I don’t want you to take it that way. And please do not mothball this site or change the name. It is perfect for the kind of work that gets done here which is giving people permission to fail, and fail better (I know that’s the name of a website but I can still use it descriptively), by your own transparency. (And do I believe that you are 100% transparent? No, none of us are or can be so get over that.)

    What I was talking about was your comment that “Once I acknowledge the fact that it is real writing, the whole thing goes to hell.” I will elaborate in my own post but the “Cliff’s Notes” version is I think you have the idea that writing for real should be more inspired, or more professional, or should only take one rewrite, or some such nonsense. That is bunk, you are doing real writing and you need to print up a WORD doc that reads:

    I do real writing

    …in 36 font Times Roman and make 20 copies of it and post it prominently and read it aloud every time you see one of those copies until you believe it and exorcise that counterproductive thinking and behaving. And we all have a j-o-b to keep us afloat but we need to give it its due but no more than its due.

  5. @Deb Don’t worry – that’s me talking about my own lack of courage. I didn’t think you were saying that. 🙂

    My lack of courage is something that Ralph Keyes talks about in Courage to Write: I’m afraid of success.

    So no one should worry about me turning off this site (got an email from a reader right after that last comment). I love the name and the idea behind the site and I can’t see a time when I won’t.

    Writing and failure go hand in hand. It’s part of the game. The best work comes from stretching yourself.

    I’m looking forward to that next post of yours, Deb!

  6. Just found your post from… I think it was Writing Journey? Some other comment you made. Anyway, wow.

    You don’t come out and say it, but I think you’re grappling with the same sort of thing as I do, that you want to write but can’t seem to make the time or commitment to sit down and decide to write something substantial. I just started my blog today and I feel like maybe I’ll make strides in my writing now that I can email posts from anywhere, but I know I’m going to have to get over my own issues before I can actually create something as powerful as the passion I have for writing.

    Am I making sense? Also sorry for writing this whole post about myself– being self-absorbed will come back to bite you sometimes. What I wanted to say though, was, GREAT! You really connected with me as a reader.


  7. @Deb I haven’t. I heard it was pretty good. Did you like it?

    @Steph I think that’s the same problem every writer faces no matter how far along they are in their career. I’ve written two novels and I still have trouble thinking about the next piece.

    Thanks for the kind words and good luck with your blog! You should turn those two paragraphs above into a nugget for a new post on your site! 🙂

  8. Okay Jamie, it’s up. Warning, it’s long but not as long as Chicago.

    Oops, that should be Forrester with 2 Rs. It’s not great cinema but I liked it. I think it illustrated how much of a writer’s angst is self-imposed by some misguided idea that self-flagellation is our only duty.

    Your previous comment about fearing success made me think you had seen the movie. So in the interest of “no spoilers” I’ll leave it at that.

    Have you read Margaret Mitchell’s (Gone with the Wind) bio?

  9. Jamie, Thank you for the Stumble. I wondered where all the Sunday traffic came from and then saw StumbleOn in the list of referrers. I have to sit down and figure out StumbleOn someday, maybe when real life isn’t on the verge of a crash.

  10. “It is one of the paradoxes of the sustained creative life that the more lightly we take ourselves the more serious work we will probably be able to do. The more we bear down on ourselves, the more constricted we will feel, and the more vulnerable we will be to creative injury” –Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

    Joanna Young shared this quote today and I could not help but share it with you. You have accomplished serious work when you “almost started writing.” You are talented my friend, and I eagerly look forward to the next installment.

    Karen Swim’s last blog post..How I Made the A-List with Little to No Fanfare

  11. Well hi! I don’t know what took me so long to get here, but I’m so glad I came. I saw you on Stumble and was instantly struck by the “writer and programmer”, because… me too! And someday, I will make that switch. Or, rather, just get rid of the programming part. But for now it’s doing the day job to pay the bills while blogging and also trying to find time to write, on top of everything else! I keep getting caught up in all the blogging and social networking stuff, but it’s refreshing to find another real writer.

    Margaret’s last blog post..Shoes White People Like

  12. @Deb You’re most welcome. Hope things get better soon!

    @Karen Thank you for the great quote and the kind words, Karen. That means a lot… By the way, Joanna Young is awesome. She always has the good stuff. 🙂

    @Margaret Welcome aboard! You know I’ve met so many different artists who are programming as a “day job”: musicians, painters, performance artists, and of course writers. I’m not sure if we’re a clever bunch or if we’ve all gotten suckered into the field. 😉

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