Shakespeare, Gray Hairs, and Peggy Lee

A week or so after moving into the new house, I stood in the guest bedroom, unpacking all of my books, when an enormous wave of sadness overtook me.

On one hand this was nothing new. In the days before, during, and after the move, more than once I stood in a room full of boxes thinking, “It can’t be done.” Also, “Why do I have so much shit?”

But this wave of sadness felt more pointed. If a wave can feel pointed. It was pointing me at something, but in my exhaustion it took me a few minutes to make out the direction.  In the middle of my alphabetical shelving, somewhere between Shakespeare and Sam Shepard,  I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t wipe a tear from my eye.  I was too tired to cry. So I sat there looking at the books till it hit me.

I’d lost my way. I’d failed where those writers had succeeded. Each book was like a reproach. Concrete evidence of their drive and dedication, their private sacrifices. And me? I was 20 pages from the end of my own book. I’d been there for several months, after starting on the damn thing eight years ago.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. A new house. The arson. And I’d been working three jobs, two of which involved a great deal of writing, about a subject for which I’d had to feign great interest: marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. All writers could learn a thing or two from marketers. But each hour I spent thinking and reading about marketing were hours I couldn’t spend writing my book, reading my favorite authors, discovering new books, or figuring out how to be a better writer.

This is the great battle for all writers, since writing rarely pays the rent. A battle I’d been losing. I was tired and angry all of the time, pulled in a hundred different directions. My current freelance client had revealed herself to be a sociopath, happily devouring every hour my sweetness had offered her, and who’d paid me back with resentment.

Three jobs had meant more money, and the money had been good, and we’d just bought a house, and there I sat, in the new house, surrounded by boxes and not-crying, adrift from the thing that had given my life the most meaning.

That night, over dinner in our kitchen, with the oven and the lights shorting out from a faulty breaker, my husband listened to this familiar tale of woe, then told me the same thing he’d been telling me for months. And this time I heard him.

And though it made me anxious and nauseous, because it meant disappointing other people, whose interests I’d put ahead of my own, the next day I gave notice at two of the three jobs. I kept one, the job with the health insurance and the commuter check and the greatest number of hours, the job I could leave every day at the office. The job that involved no writing at all.

I’m writing this with a head full of cold medicine, which is making me self-indulgent. Or more self-indulgent than usual. The cold and other complications kept me out of Joe’s chair, which means I’ve gone a full two weeks since my last haircut. I know, it’s an atrocity. But in my slightly-longer sideburns I see more than a couple of gray hairs, and it’s this, I think, that finally allowed me to hear Joe’s advice about dropping the 2 jobs.

Because at the age of 41 I keep looking around and thinking, “Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee was before my time, but apparently the sentiment is universal. And in no way does this apply to my husband, or our pack of dogs, or the new house.

It’s the panicked, and yes, self-pitying cry of a middle-aged (yikes) man who’s worked a series of low-wage desk jobs and has a 98% finished book that scares him shitless, and who’s afraid he hasn’t made nearly the mark he’d like on the world.

The only way to answer that question is with action. So I dropped the 2 jobs and now, leaner and slightly less exhausted, I face the end of the book with less money and fewer excuses.

Of course I immediately filled some of this free time with another project. I caught the gardening bug. Again. Long story, but the new house has enormous outdoor potential, and I’m obsessed with making it pretty. Or prettier. Happiness comes from low expectations. Besides, on the spectrum of addictions, gardening feels slightly more productive than, say, crystal meth. Or Playstation 3.

Even without gardening, a new house is essentially four walls of endless projects. But the two weeks notice I gave the two jobs have passed, Joe’s Barbershop has opened again, and in fits and starts I’ve made a little progress on the book. Maybe Peggy Lee will quieten down for a little while.

7 thoughts on “Shakespeare, Gray Hairs, and Peggy Lee

  1. Jeffrey C

    Love the pictures of the pack on the other blog. Your space is going to be transformational in ways you may not expect.

  2. Jim Meehan

    The summer I was finishing my dissertation, I discovered that a friend of mine taught calligraphy, and suddenly it seemed ESSENTIAL that I learn how write beautifully, so I signed up for some lessons, bought pens and ink and paper, and spent many hours drawing n’s and o’s and … and avoiding my dissertation. But I realized what I was doing, so I stopped the calligraphy and just about everything else (I also came out that summer!), and every day I took a deep breath and dove back into my real task. I finished the dissertation in time to get a teaching job in the fall, much to many people’s surprise. Most important, I was FREE of that thing that had both defined and impeded my life — and that has made all the difference. For what it’s worth, my advice is that you do whatever it takes to finish the book by, say, July 31st, come hell or high water. Then you can turn the Garden of Guilty Pleasures into a Garden with No Deadlines. And start your next book.

    One more story: Years later, I was struggling with another book, and so was a friend of mine, John Boswell. We would commiserate about how this was taking forever, and we had a running joke about “the goddamn book,” his and mine. As it happened, I finished mine first, and John got me a present from a novelty story: a framed, fake front page of a newspaper, bearing the giant headline “Meehan Finishes Goddamn Book — Boswell Lags Behind.” It’s one of my most cherished possessions, and a reminder of a dear departed friend.

  3. Cynthia

    I have this same dilemma all the time: write or pay the bills? I worked three jobs in the fall semester and there was no time to even do the laundry, let alone write. I haven’t figured out this balance yet but we have to keep at it, and I think you’re at exactly the right stage in the game to cut back and focus on your end goal. We’re all rooting for you!! Cynthia

  4. cminca

    Michner didn’t start writing until he was 40. Dr. Suess didn’t start until, I believe, he retired.

    Pasternak was born in 1890 and didn’t start Dr. Zivago until the end of WWII–so he was at least 55. It was published in 1956–so it took approximately 11 years.

    Michael–You’re in great company. You need everything you have and are experiencing to be the writer you are and will be.

    But please–hurry up and finish. We’re hungry out here and can’t wait!

  5. Steven Patterson

    We need your writing, Mike. Thanks for listening to (and finally hearing) Joe.

Comments are closed.