>This is an excerpt of Fallow Fields, an essay about sterility in writing.
The full text is available in Mason’s Road.
Let me speak to you as you like: with pretty language flowing through manicured Zen gardens of sense. I understand that preference viscerally. As a younger writer, I used to make love to words. I rolled them off the tongue to taste their sweetness, to imbibe their fragrance, to test their texture. The words in themselves were like edible flowers, sugar-pearled, lovely bouquets of freshness breathing sun and oxygen onto the graced, graceful page. But now, as living teaches me life, words come out rougher and less hewn, like clods of earth, still fragrant and fresh, but pungent. They demand that I dig my fingers into them, that I let their earthiness lift my nails and mark me with vulgar streaks of brown and black, my skin redolent with their aroma. They are more alive, in some sense, but less pretty: they demand that I accept their potential as they are, minerals and water and mud and nutrient and beetles’ wings, dried up skeletons of cockroaches, roots, weeds, the husks of wild bird seeds, messy, yet ordered, alive, real. But how to present a pot filled with clods and ask, do you smell the life in this dirt? Do you see the gods in this crumbling soil? Do you find the seed of lilies and azaleas with the tangle of weeds and roots?
It’s hard to penetrate the readership when words are earth and clod. It is a prayer to a dead god to hope to dump the whole mess of this rich earth and hope that someone may see how the sun favors it, how water embraces it, how life permeates it and wants to move through it, upwards, in beautiful tendrils of green, budding with the promise of a different kind of art, something not so pretty, a little bit thorny, wild and unaccountable, hostile and untamed.
The Time of No Time
Days, and days again, three novels languish, un-nurtured mewling fetuses, half alive, half still belonging to the womb of my laptop’s hard-drive, rotating in unimaginable spins of megabytes, gigabytes, still deformed conglomerates of word just barely with a heartbeat, longing to be fed, to be formed, kicking at the walls of my uterus, demanding my attention. I, the renegade mother. I am not a mother even in real life, postponing what my biology demands of me with the rigors of economy, of a husband who is too old to nurture a new child, of a job that permits no time outside of grading persuasion papers and oral synthesis. I am the American adjunct, just recently turned tenure track at a college too small to appreciate the rigors of art, too large to forgive lapsed time, a phenomena of oppression just bursting to turn into revolution. A revolutionary has no motherhood, cannot afford the luxury of motherhood. My novels are patient; they nudge me gently when I am lecturing, when I am thinking of the children I could have had if I had stuck to my original plan of seeking a job in editing rather than through academia. The novels remind me that I am seven years since my last book, that I’m pushing the limits of what is acceptable of an academic’s scholarship record even here in rural Georgia; my unborn children remind me that I’m already years past the age of motherhood without science, that I should call back the strange doctor who talks of “firing up” my uterus with drugs. I fill my time with grant-writing and course-proposals, student conferences, listserv commentary on the status of budget cuts and their influence on scholastic standards; I am seeking escape routes from the womb; I am abandoning my three children, half formed, whose telepathic cries I hear in the night. I dread coming here, to this place of attention and nurturing, to this place of listlessness and stillness. It is without beauty, a sinister place threatening failure, populated by amorphous shapes that swat at my face like the claws of a perfect predator, taunting me with smells I don’t recognize, a history I don’t remember of landscapes far away.
This is the place where all mistakes are made. If I could insert a periscope through my genitals, this is what my womb would look like, a place of discontent and blood, a place of permeations and membranes, hellishly steamy and cramping. In here, anything is possible, but the burden of possibility rests in places obscure, where the fragile ovule of art is attached perilously to thorny, saw-toothed vines. I must somehow detach it without damaging my perfect ovule, without breaking it or altering its shape out of potential perfection. It must be seduced, wooed in ways primitive and instinctual, such labor so unfamiliar to the overburdened teacher. I would rather do anything, anything at all than be here. I would rather draw schedules, compose rubrics, re-design assignments, seek more grants where my language need not bare the self-effacing demands of nurturing motherhood.
Don’t I have some emails to answer? Conferences to prepare for? I come out of this place quickly, with my held breath still boiling in my plexus now bursting forth with droplets of maroon blood; shreds of placenta on my shoulders marble me with the responsibilities I have forfeited yet again. (Write every day, I tell my students. Without that daily labor, there is no hope for art.)