Thursday, November 17, 2011

Catch Me If You Can

by Zinta Aistars

On my long morning commute to the office, I watch the ominous skies. The sky is heavy, gray, and the clouds with full bellies, hanging low. For a moment, a hint of snow swirls across the road, riding the wind, then vanishes again.

It’s that between seasons time of year, not quite autumn anymore, not yet winter. Trees are bare, leaves fallen, and all the colors seem to have been washed away. It is a landscape of bleak browns and shades of gray.

It’s one of my silent mornings. My radio is turned off, my thoughts free to roam without distraction. The road itself does little to interrupt my daydreaming—in my fifth year of this commute, I know every bump on it. The car very nearly drives itself.

My mind wanders to the novella manuscript I finished a little over a week ago, titled Catch as Catch Can. I am slowly reading it again, trying for that objective eye, and making edits, marking places to be rewritten. Once I finish this first set of edits, I will hand it over to a dear friend who is also a writer, my “first eyes” that I trust for suggestions of more edits. Then, marinate. Set it aside for a month or three, to take it up again later and do another rewrite, a final polish before beginning submissions.

Art takes time. I love giving it that time, and only wish I had more of it to give. I gaze at the highway stretching ahead, a line leading to a horizon that I never reach. It is, in fact, the topic of my novella. I have called it my fantasy autobiography. The narrator is a woman just past the midpoint in life, longing for a freedom she can’t yet attain. Like so many of us, she wears golden handcuffs, imprisoned by financial constraints and obligations, coupled with various emotional ties, not yet able to pursue her fondest dreams—to head north into the wilderness she loves, toward a life of being a fulltime artist.

Not yet.

Only that’s where the story takes a twist. Driving this same highway, gazing at the line that leads toward a horizon she never reaches, her frustrations toss her into wishful thinking for the entire 55 miles between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids—home and office. What if she were to keep going? What if she missed her exit?

You know, accidentally on purpose.

I watch the miles pass just as the woman in my story watched them. Milestones along the way cause her mind to reel with the possibilities. Will she or won’t she? Does she give in to this delicious madness? Or does she squelch the impulse and continue to build toward the moment?

I sense her sitting beside me in the car. I can feel her rising tension in her struggle to make the right decision.

I recently had a conversation with another writer in Kalamazoo about the role of healing in art. We’ve all heard it: writing is therapy. Whatever ails us, putting it into our writing can help us to cope. Developing a storyline around our tangled thoughts and emotions can help unravel them and put them right again.

For the same reason, writing can be dangerous.

I’ve put my fantasy into this novella. One such frustrated Monday, heading in to the office, what if I accidentally on purpose missed my exit, exit 84B … and just kept going? Would the world swing off its axis and crash? Would my house in Kalamazoo go up in flames? Would I end up a homeless bag lady living off dumpster scraps?

Of course, I don’t have a crystal ball and I cannot tell the future. Yet in writing Catch as Catch Can, I’ve explored various scenarios. I’ve chased down many “what ifs” and played out a number of possible outcomes. The dangerous part is that in doing so—I’ve put quite a few of my real fears to rest.

I will give my future readers a hint: the world does not swing off its axis and crash into oblivion. It keeps turning.

If many artists, in whatever medium, work their heartaches, their daydreams, their frustrations, their hopes and dreams into their art form, many do indeed find some measure of healing in the process. The writer I recently spoke to about healing in art is finding his way to closure of an open wound he’s carried inside him for 15 years.

If writing is therapy, bringing healing, it can also be a launching pad.

When I get to my office (at least on this morning), I look at the yellow Post-It note I keep pasted to the wall above my desk. Every morning, I tear it off—with relish—and write a new one, minus one day. Today, it shows the number 4,575. That’s how many days to retirement if I keep my head firmly attached to my shoulders, fulfilling all my requirements and obligations as sensible people have advised me to do before finally unsnapping those golden handcuffs and tossing them in the wastebasket. I look at it before I take up my first project for the day and whisper to myself: “Be good, Z.”

The novella was my way of giving in to the fantasy early. I’m pretty sure, although not entirely positive, that I won’t give in to that fantasy next Monday. Or the one after. Having played out the variables in my head and on paper, however, gives me a growing sense it won’t take 4,575 days either.

I don’t know when it’s going to happen. As many possibilities as I have explored in these 30,000 words, I know I have not explored all of them. The possibilities, after all, are infinite. Yet a writer must be careful of what she writes—more than once, in hindsight, I have found that I have paved a path with my words and written my own future.

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