Writing is a Moment
I spent several mornings on the sandy bank off Rockaway Beach, Oregon, atop a handcrafted wooden bench, watching the organic disappearance and reappearance of a small mountain on the beach's edge behind a subtle mist. The ocean bellowed cold air against me, a full forty degrees cooler than my home in Lubbock, Texas. The community of Rockaway Beach consists of retired locals and a fluctuating tourist population, and while the situation might present as another simple town on the edge of America, the sharp-talking, fiercely-independent, uniquely-compassionate people I met reminded me of something lost in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic: the importance of experience for a writer.
Paradoxically, we're pulled to create while in quarantine. More time at home, in front of our computers, a click away from a word processor. At the same time, we distinctly lack a variety of experience. Mundaneness characterizes the quarantine experience, life becoming the proverbial, solo-play, a ball tossed against a wall. So we dig through our cache of memories, tossing from it the largest objects, the biggest ideas, the things we couldn't get to. "Now's the time," we say, forgetting, perhaps, how each interaction, each moment in the wild, nurtures the wildness of our hearts and the aloofness of our imaginations. So we sing with dry throats.
It was a calculated risk, or a foolhardy submission, to just go. The airport felt like a minefield. Don't touch anything, wipe down, sanitize, birthday songs in bathrooms, wary side eyes, everyone's a danger, stay distant to go somewhere to be close. Masks are fashion statements now, emblazoned with stars and stripes in some sort of reaching irony, or simple, playful colors, like bright pinks. Children tottered with masks askew, worried more about their feet in front of them than the potential for some invisible danger. How do they conceive? Grown men with their masks askew, pulled below their noses, loose around their necks. Inconceivable. "Masks are required in the terminal," "Face coverings are mandated by [insert governor] in [insert state]," and other messages ran alongside reminders of caring for personal baggage and the roll calls of missing passengers.
We boarded ten at a time, then walked through the lot seated before us. We sat in the window and aisle seats to "maintain social distance," and the seats never seemed smaller. This was the best we could do for the sake of capitalism. So I cranked my gasper open, unsure if it would funnel airborne virus particles into the top of my mask or push the virus away. Sanitize. Bleach wipe. Don't take the water. Don't take the pretzels. I listened to an interview with Chuck Palahniuk, and he talked about self-censorship, writing as a bastion for free creativity, about pushing the limits, about writing at the edges of appreciation, things people turn away from, fear, struggle with, about being kicked out of workshops, scaring people, and, yes, about what writing is. He alludes to the idea that writing isn't sitting in front of a computer and tapping at mechanical keys. "That's typing," he says. Writing is conceiving, sharing the idea in social spaces. Writing is a social space. Beta testing over a beer, listening to people relate, or how they don't relate. "Did you consider this?" No, I didn't, but I should, and will, because I'm a writer and I listen. Writing is listening, too. He said it brought people joy when he wrote using one of their ideas. It occurred to me that writing is a communal event, not a solitary toil, that we've confused ourselves into thinking that isolation is conducive to imagining.
"What do you write?" Gail asked me in a small bar called Littoral at the end of their street. Littoral means "relating to or situated on the shore of the sea," and the name is fitting, as it's a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean. The bar's well-designed, hip, even, if that's still a thing. I tell her "Southern Gothic," a response that earns me everything short of an eye roll from my academic peers, but she stares instead, and asks for comparisons. "Ever seen No Country for Old Men?" and she shrugs and pushes a napkin at me. She asks me where she can find it and I write down my website. It feels like an exercise we writers repeat over and over again—insert our own eye roll—you're going to read it? Sure. So, I feel like an asshole the next morning as she compliments my stories by name, as her partner, Rick, explains that his passing glance for my story "Buzz" led to him sitting down and reading it through. What a strange (and refreshing) feeling that was. I was humbled.
I order a gingery noodle dish with Hawai'ian style kalua pig and stare across the beachside parking lot to a play place near to the scenic railroad entrance. The play place is shaped like a pirate ship, outfitted with tattered sails and tall, sky-spearing masts that must have been giant to the young children playing among them. I forgot for a moment that I was in the middle of a pandemic. I felt a tinge of irresponsibility. Look at this happiness. Look at this peace.
I think now of Rick inviting me to his porch for a beer. Oregon's full of unique breweries. Rogue, for example, has a distribution chain broad enough to reach Lubbock, Texas. He hands me a Coors Light. The mountains are blue. The beer is delicious. We sit and talk about Lubbock and what it's like. I look to my left and beyond the low houses is the ocean. To the right are pine-covered mountains, and the clouds lay upon them like white sheets. I tell him it's flat. "It's pretty in its own way," but don't explain how so. Gail hands me some homemade beef jerky, which I keep high from their vagrant pup, home from his journeys between the nearby houses. I'll be home again soon, too.
I write furiously on the plane ride home, three feet from the man beside me. I write about a boy falling into a tidal pool while bathed in an opaque sheet of mist. He falls from the light into the darkness, and I stop and begin writing a poem. The first lines are,
Your opening eyes
are a door to the face and a baptism
Don't take the water. Don't take the pretzels. It's 95 degrees in Texas, and though the land is flat and the citizens are maskless, it's pretty in its own way.