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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

Starting to write something is like trying to live: sometimes I wake up unsure of how I ought to feel about it. Oh, I know how I do feel--it's a welter, a morass, a quicksand of shuffling emotions, often beginning with a compression in the chest and a tingle in the nose. But just as I knew in high school, most of these feelings are not "right." How do I know? Because people have hastened to tell me so, of course! You need to let go of that. That isn't funny. Someday, hopefully, you will be able to . . . and other instructive advice. Meanwhile, what do I do with whatever feeling actually is burning a hole through my shirt?

Likewise, sitting down to a blank piece of paper (yes, future biographers: I often use pen on paper, though sometimes I use the computer, and sometimes I go back and forth between the two, so that when I hit a wall using one, I switch to the other with my fingers crossed that it will dislodge some bricks), I never know if I've got the tone right, or the form, though they might well be the same thing. One wants to write a brilliant book, no? So the first sentence must be brilliant. And when I sit down to write a brilliant sentence, well, the jig is up. I can go fold the laundry all I want--when I come back and try again, the brilliant sentence craftily eludes me some more.

So I seek to set a trap for it: I pour a finger of bourbon, not to drown the sentence, but my anxiety over not getting one. Then I put on the headphones. Sometimes I choose music that's fast and insistent, with a compelling rhythm. (No mystery why martial music is big on percussion, and in a further aside, I was thinking last weekend as my son and I were listening to my precious old double album set of Civil War music--my son helpless to do anything but get up and march about the living room, not so different from the slightly older boys whose ears, filled with this prompting, marched onto fields of blood--it is unlikely that anyone will be issuing a collection of Iraqi war music.) I hope that the energy of, say, the Gypsy Kings will cause the words to flow quickly, so they can slip past the internal schoolmarm who wants to halt them so she can see that they've washed the back of their necks.

This last would be analogous to what dog trainer Kim said to me the other night after I had just put Nelly through a short course of agility equipment: "You're overthinking it." When you're doing something physical, it's amazing how quickly--unnoticeably quickly--a little input from the conscious mind can cause a collapse. Nelly, of course, picks it up before I realize what I've done: all of a sudden, she flies past, not over; she comes back out the same end of the tunnel she went in; she does the bedeviling weave poles perfectly the first two times, then the third she pops out at the fourth pole, looks at me as if to say, "Mom, what the heck do you want me to do??" and we try it again and again, until the expression on Nelly's face and indeed whole body is one of pure frustration. Of course, she is eager to voice it (did I mention that Nelly is a screamer?).

That's when I know my mind must have switched on, very much like the electric sensor for our furnace, which I can hear underneath the kitchen floor suddenly clicking, running, then clicking off (though this might actually serve better as an illustration of how poorly insulated our floors are). A moment's hesitation on my part--oh, damn, where is number 6 again, the walk or the chute?--causes everything to fall apart in an instant. Dogs are so attentive to our bodies that the slightest inclination of the shoulders can send them in a different direction. You're not aware that your foot was pointing half an inch off from where you wanted your dog to go; or that your eyes had flicked for a second over there and not here, but your dog saw it. You weren't aware that your dog did, but then your dog speaks body language, and you're just a beginner in it, struggling along with your tapes and remedial classes and your execrable pronunciation. Your dog is fluent, writing poetry with full mastery of tense, nuance, tone.

Sometimes I listen to Bach concertos, Glenn Gould at the piano, cranked to the top. This is the recording that keeps the plane up when I fly; I think it must be the sound of Gould's breath and hum under the music. These compositions are so head-exploding, so humanly impossible, that half the time I am able to write, and half the time I burst into tears. Anyway, crying seems the only proper response to this music's hugeness: it is an aural cathedral, so full of awesomeness the whole sweep of human existence is there before you, and you are at once aware of its puny futility and i
ts unspeakable wonder.

If this doesn't get the words out onto the screen, I might resort to another finger of bourbon, for exactly the same reason that I do so when at a party: intense social anxiety. I have to fake myself out, chemically if necessary, so I don't think about what I'm doing wrong, which will cause me to fall to the floor in a paroxysm of self-consciousness, and then I'm rather unlikely to attract a date, aren't I? Not to mention a brilliant sentence.

Can you tell that I am trying to start some new writing?

I am overthinking everything these days. I just heard the furnace click on.