on steam and running out of it

Last week a good friend of mine wrote a thorough and thoughtful response in an email thread and toward the end of his missive, he admitted he had run of steam and quickly signed off. He knew we would understand. We are all writers and we all run out of steam. While I was reading my friend’s email, I thought, “Gosh, I’m glad he said that. That happens to me all the time.” Usually, I’m not brave or prudent enough to cop to running out of steam. Usually, I just abandon the project or throw together a shoddy conclusion and pretend that it is my best effort. The former reaction is my default, and it plagues me. My blog is full of posts that never made it past the draft stage.

For example, I wrote these 530 words about how it might be time for me to give up on Ned and Alexis, and then I just never wrote through the rest of my conflict.

Recently, I was sitting around a fire pit, drinking bourbon and discussing General Hospital with a good friend.

SIDE NOTE: Very few of my friends watch GH. Sadly, most of the people who like soap operas are not the sort of people whom I’d befriend. My smart, career-minded friends are too busy for a daytime serial and prefer to occupy their limited free time with more intellectual pursuits. Haha. The truth is closer to “more contemporary pursuits.” This particular friend is very smart and career-minded but, totally independent of my influence, also enjoys GH. I found this out quite by accident, as neither of us exactly advertises our shame. Now that our mutual secret is out in the open, we talk about the show whenever we can. I responded to the idea of having a friend with whom to discuss GH like a hangover takes to Vitamin Water.

Back to the fire pit. My friend asked me how I was feeling about Julian and Alexis. Alexis is our favorite character, and we agreed that this new romance has given her some much-deserved screen time and popularity. I confessed, however, that I am still holding out for a Ned and Alexis reunion. My friend was in the Peace Corps for the entire duration of Ned and Alexis’s relationship so she didn’t even know they used to be a couple. Isn’t that the saddest story you’ve ever heard? I’m sure she got a lot out of her time in the Peace Corps, but was it worth the sacrifice? I guess these are things you can never know for sure.

My sister has also asked about Julian. I just don’t have an answer. I am so conflicted. It took me awhile to stop thinking of him as Michael Cambias from All My Children, but I think I’m finally over that. I can tell that Nancy Grahn and William deVry have a good time working together, and that is always fun to watch. They have good chemistry, and the relationship makes sense, despite the instances in which Alexis seems completely blind to the truth. That’s par for the course in soaps, though. I can’t suddenly impose different expectations. There isn’t anything standing in the way of my support for Julexis except Ned.

Ned and Alexis have been over for a long time, but it just takes one moment—like Ned asking Alexis to dinner a few months ago—to give me hope, just like it only takes one snow day for me to wonder if work will be canceled every time it snows.

These new developments between Ned and Olivia are really forcing the issue. I don’t know if Ned is back for good. I certainly hope so. If Alexis with Julian gets her more attention and Ned with Olivia keeps him on GH, then I suppose I’ll have to learn to live without my favorite couple as a couple. Part of loving people is wanting what’s best for them even if it isn’t what’s best for you, right?

This conflict perfectly illustrates why the soaps are such a good fit for me. I have loved Ned and Alexis for going on fifteen years.

And there’s this 600-word musing about rereading Animal Dreams:

When I first read The Year of Magical Thinking, I didn’t talk too much about it. It was late 2007 or early 2008. I was deeply affected by the book, but it was as if I had witnessed a terrible tragedy and shock kept me from being able to discuss it out loud. I told my mom, my sister, and Andy about the book, and they read it and probably wondered why I wanted them to suffer as I had. Suffering over the ways words fit together has always been a secret pleasure of mine. That the story that accompanies The Year of Magical Thinking is also worth the suffering just makes the book even more perfect.

I had the same reaction to Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. That book hit closer to home than The Year of Magical Thinking. My response was even more visceral, even more evocative of the medical condition known as shock, and even more private. You see, Animal Dreams is about an older sister who worries over her younger, more adventurous sister who has gone to Nicaragua. Imagine the goose bumps as I read this book for the first time, right before my own younger, more adventurous sister left to spend a semester in Ecuador. Even now, some five years later, I can’t believe the universe put that book in my hands at that particular time in my life.

There is more to the story, of course. It is as layered and nuanced as any Kingsolver novel. The words fit together perfectly, too. I love these words that the younger, more adventurous sister writes in a letter to her older, worried sister.


On the one hand, I like to drive, especially in the summer. Lately, I like to turn on George Strait, watch the road stretch out in front of me, and take pleasure in the easiness of driving. On a metaphorical level, of course, this idea is about taking pleasure in the journey—in the getting there—instead of focusing entirely on the destination. This isn’t a lesson I need. I am the sort of person who stares out the window aimlessly, who smells her clean laundry, and who talks to her cat about his day, but I like the way Kingsolver has approached this rather cliched notion.

I reread Animal Dreams last month. It still has the same power that it did when I read it originally. I found myself holding my breath and getting more and more anxious. I would sometimes have to stop, close the book, and think about something else for a few minutes until I could go on. I don’t usually have such emotional relationships with books. There are just three books that affect me in this way: The Year of Magical Thinking, Animal Dreams, and Beloved by Toni Morrison. These books are feats of writing. Every sentence is constructed with that blend of skill and magic that makes all the words I already know seem brand new and shiny. These books are also earnest and raw stories. When good writing and a compelling story come together, it’s intoxicating. I’m never more myself than when I’m high on a good book. Part of me is anxious both because I know the feeling is fleeting, that the book will end, and because I know this kind of experience is rare, that for the rest of my life, there may only be these three books that get me quite this high. But the other part of me is just so happy to be reading this book. A sort of fog forms around my brain and I forget where I am and who I am. There is only this book, nothing else.

I run out of steam for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a thought just isn’t as worth writing about as I initially perceived. More often, though, I just get interrupted and never go back. That’s so pedestrian, but it’s the truth. Steam is hard to recapture. Once I’ve moved on to something else, it’s hard to return to the headspace necessary to finish an old thought.

This one is a good example. Last summer (meaning 2013), I started to write a post called “Some Things Are Easier,” and I got this far:

Sometimes, I work really hard to make things the way I want them to be. I apply to graduate school. I move to a new house because I know my cat is dying. I ask people to be my friends, and I invite them to my new house. These things are varying levels of successful.

Sometimes, I don’t try at all. I just buy a badminton set because I like badminton, and then I accidentally have the best summer of my life.

It seems like a promising start, but that is all it will ever be.

The weight of all these unfinished ideas starts to get heavy. I sit down to write a new blog post, and the long list of drafts begins to chatter, “Finish us. Don’t forget about us. Finish us. Finish us.” Or worse, the drafts just mock me, “Why are you even bothering to start something new? You know you’ll never finish it.” So I’m using this blog post as a way to clean the slate and start anew. I’m deleting all the drafts and committing to finishing stuff.