A Burst of Laughter: Some Thoughts About Writing

matariki_dawnLast night I was up late. After the kids went to bed I climbed the cold hill in the dark from the Warren to my office (which is in my neighbor’s guest cabin), determined to write chapter thirty-two of my new book before I went to sleep. I don’t know why, but that chapter has been exceedingly hard to get my head around.

At about 1 in the morning I pinned it down. Or maybe I set it free. (Both metaphors apply.) I could hardly hold my eyes open, but I managed to perform my chapter-finishing ritual: a) save the document called “Chapter 32″, then b) copy and paste it into the body of the document called “All Chapters” so I can see my word count and page number and c) feel like I’ve accomplished something. It’s a good feeling, and on nights like last night, a hard-earned one. It’s the same feeling I get when I finish a five-mile run, or when I cut off the lawn mower, or when I lean my guitar case in the corner of the family room after a long weekend of shows. Good work means good rest.

The walk down the hill to our sleepy house is the crossing of a threshold. It’s a transition from the world of “what if?” to the world of “is”. The grass under my boots is something I don’t have to work to describe in a story–God did the work already, and I just have to walk. He described it and so it is. What a thing it is to walk on the grass of God’s imagination. The glow I see in the window is from an actual lamp on an actual nightstand, where I know a book is waiting to be read. I hear my dog in the woods. I remember that his echoing baritone bark is made up of actual soundwaves crashing out of his throat to ricochet off the trunks of the juniper, honey locust, and hackberry trees where an actual opossum is trembling in the brush. I sense these things on the cold walk home, and I marvel at this world God thought up. In the words of poet Richard Wilbur, “The world is fundamentally a great wonder.”

I am convinced that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass. We can hardly make anything beautiful that wasn’t beautiful in the first place. We aren’t writers, but gleeful rearrangers of words whose meanings we can’t begin to know. When we manage to make something pretty, it’s only so because we are ourselves a flourish on a greater canvas. That means there’s no end to the discovery. We may crawl around the cathedral floor for ages before we grow up enough to reach the doorknob and walk outside into a garden of delights. Beyond that, the city, then the rolling hills, then the sea. And when the world of every cell has been limned and painted and sung, we lie back on the grass, satisfied that our work is done. Then, of course, the sun sets and we see above us the dark dome of glittering stars.

On and on it goes, all the way to the lightless borderlands of time and space, which we come to discover in some future age are but the beginnings or endings of a single word spoken from the mouth of God. Some nights, while I traipse down the hill, I imagine that word isn’t a word at all, but a burst of laughter.