What I Am Doing Here Exactly

Before this semester started, a new school with new classes for me, I sought advice from a colleague who’s taught at the college for many years. She told me she starts the semester with existential questions for her students. Eighteen-year-olds, primarily young women at our school, spend the first class (in this case, research-based writing) considering: Who am I? What am I doing here exactly? What more is there to learn about me? How can I possibly be happy or seek fulfillment when pain, suffering, and death are inevitable?

(For my part, I started the semester talking about my baby son, S.)

Since then, though, I’ve been trying really hard to mute a sound that’s tucked up there in my brain. A wheeze, really, that escapes its dank little brain hole the moment I open my laptop. Three words strung together for maximum destructive effect: What’s the point?

It’s awful. It’s awful to hear that whiny buzz—like a motorcycle revving three blocks away, like a leaf blower across the lake—just when I find five or ten minutes to write.

Yet in the face of it, I keep writing and revising and reading journals and reading for a journal and offering feedback on work by friends and caring a great deal about the writing my students turn in.

Right now I’m working on a piece based on a trip took Botswana. I’m very concerned with bird sounds. I have been for at least a month. I want to get the sounds just right.

I listen to those damned birdcalls on birdcall websites, over and over. Is it “zaw-caw” or more “zah-cah” I wonder. Is it even a “z” or more like a “ts” at the beginning? Start again. Turn it up. Lean in close.

How can I possibly spend my time writing birdcalls—rearranging the lettered representations, trying to match them exactly and honor my memory of them to boot—when pain, suffering, and death are happening, everywhere, inevitably? And how can I possibly teach my students that what they are writing about actually matters? That how they say it, how clearly and with how much conviction, makes a difference to anyone at all?

My friend and co-author of the Seven Sins Series, Cheryl Wilder, wrote in her essay on Sloth in the writing life:

By ignoring our writing we cut ourselves off from the rewards that stem from this deep thinking and creativity, and we fail a community that needs the respite of a compelling story after a long, hard day, an essay that helps them feel less alone, or a poem that provides courage during a tough time. By not honoring the writing life we are not honoring our thread in history, our connection to the great writers before us, the ones in our midst, and the ones yet to come.

In the last few months I have returned often to these words. They manage to drown out the whiny buzz, even if they can’t mute it altogether.

What am I doing here exactly? In the positive, I’m thinking, creating, connecting, threading.

Today, though, what I find more important is this: in the negative, I’m not causing anyone pain or suffering. I’m not facing down death nor am I facilitating the deaths of others. I’m not relishing in anyone’s pain or secretly wishing suffering upon anyone. I’m not plotting another’s demise. I’m not watching my handiwork inflict immense anguish and feeling smug or proud or relieved or triumphant.

You know what I’m doing here, you wheezy little existential thought? I’m listening to birdcalls and working hard to match them with the right letters. That’s what I’m doing here exactly. Eff off, whiny buzz.