My daughter is five. There are a lot of concepts she can grasp now that were just beyond her reach when she was younger. So in the last week of December, I tried to explain the concept of the New Year. On December 31, I told her, “Today is the last day of 2007 and tomorrow will be 2008.” She knew I was going to a grown-up party to celebrate. She heard me calling friends and family, wishing them a happy 2008. I left the same voicemail so many times, that she got sick of hearing it. After my gagillionth time saying: Hi, I haven’t called you all year, but I’m just calling to say happy 2008, she said—in her pragmatic, know-it-all, matter-of-fact tone—“Mom, nothing’s different.”
And of course she’s right. A year is just a concept—just like a month, a week, an hour, a minute, and a second. These are all concepts that some human being created to manage this great stretch of awareness that is the human experience. These carefully calibrated concepts are sometimes the only things that help people to continue living. ‘This day will be over soon,’ they may soothe themselves by saying. ‘This year is a struggle, next year will be better,’ they may say consolingly in tough moments.
Metaphysical deconstructions of time notwithstanding, the New Year, for many, does mean something. Though from the point of view of a very smart five-year-old nothing has changed, a new year can bring a whiff of inspiration. It is a chance to start anew. To think differently. To adjust expectations and commitments. To hack out new paths and build new plans.
I, myself, embraced 2008 wholeheartedly. I didn’t verbalize any resolutions, but I found myself behaving differently. I would be standing in front of the elevator and suddenly say to myself, “It’s 2008, take the stairs.” In this first month of the year, I found myself spending quality time with two sets of friends I had neglected, doing some art, and actually (gasp!) writing. None of these things I planned to do, I just observed myself doing them.
Rather than try to figure out what these changes mean, I’ve decided instead to use them as a signal to embrace a new mantra. My one goal for 2008 is to achieve with ease. I plan to achieve an amazing level of productivity easefully—without stress, without extra elbow grease, without undue sacrifice.
Over the past two years, I have tussled with the concept of being a writer who isn’t currently writing. I spent almost all of 2006 and 2007 vacillating between constructing elaborate plans and concepts that would force me to write, and bemoaning the fact that I was not writing.
In 2006 I tried giving the dream back to God. I put on a brave face and said, “God, I’m no longer a writer.” I just didn’t feel the same pull to produce. I swore to God that if I never wrote again, I would be fine. “Give me another passion,” I went on to request. “It doesn’t have to be a grand sparkling dream; it doesn’t have to make me look brilliant or feel fabulous. I just want to be happy. I want a good life, and maybe a patio like the one we had in Oaxaca.”
In 2007, I started making public proclamations. I told anyone who would listen that I had exhausted the dream of being a writer. “It is beyond my control,” I told them when they stared at me as if pink bugs were oozing from my eyeballs. I tried to explain how this dream of being a writer had fueled me since college. How I went about my life with the absolute certainty that one day writing was all I’d be doing with my efforts and creative impulses. How that certainty allowed me to drift through life with a (relatively) unruffled brow, how it allowed me to accept the times that I wasn’t writing as just momentary lapses because my true writing future was out there waiting, beckoning even, for me to come closer. And how different I felt of late. How, in my quiet moments, there was no beckoning. There was just me, making complicated plans of how to continue being the writer I knew myself to be. There was just me, the person who was the writer, trying to push the person-who-was-no-longer-a-writer into being a writer again.
It made for very awkward moments when I had to introduce myself. No one within earshot would accept me omitting my writer identity from my introduction, but then when it had been introduced, people wanted to talk about it—the writing that did not exist—and wanted to know what I was currently writing—nothing—and generally wanted to meet her—the writer who no longer existed.
At a recent dinner celebrating the birthday of Keith Obadike, half of the brilliantly busy artist-duo BlackNetArt, I met a woman who was in an anthology with me. When I introduced myself—first name only—she said: Are you Kiini Ibura Salaam? And I said, “I am.” “You’re a real person?” she said. And it was as if I were talking to myself. Are you a real person? The writer you once knew has evaporated, does that mean you no longer exist? Does that mean the work you have done no longer speaks to people? Does that mean that the work you have already written is suddenly mute and has nothing to say?
Ironically, I got my answer to that question months before this birthday dinner. At the end of 2007, I received an invitation to participate in an artist talk at the Brooklyn Museum, and I was absolutely shocked to have been invited. I suppose since I was estranged from the writer in myself, the last thing I expected was for the world to continue having a conversation with her.
In ensuing discussions with the organizer of the event, I discerned an important distinction. The value of art for the reader/viewer/watcher endures over time. However, for me as an artist, I value the work of artmaking. While it is the fruit of the labor that makes an artist in the public eye, it is the labor itself that makes me feel like an artist. Therefore, if I am not laboring as a writer—not in the process of writing and publishing—how could I be worthy of literary notice? How could I consider myself a writer?
Quickly and succinctly, the organizer of the event did away with my doubts as to whether or not I should claim the writing mantle. In explaining to me why she had requested my participation in the event, she said that the characters from one of my stories live with her almost daily. That is true for any work that moves us, it lives in the moment we engage with it and in all the moments we remember it. If any of the artists responsible for mesmerizing, powerful work stop creating, all the work they produced in the past remains. Just because they have stopped creating does not mean that the products of their artistic production just disappears.
I realize that there are many ways the term ‘artist’—or writer, in this case—can be defined. A writer is a person who wrote the text the reader reads. That writer is timeless. A writer is a person who commits her or his time to writing. That writer exists only in the present moment, and must recommit daily to writing. A writer is also a character, an image, an idea or a prototype that lives in each individual consciousness. As of the writing of this post, my idea of a writer—that illustrious, imaginary artist in my head—has met her demise.
What I did not understand until this New Year is that, in my last few years of active writing, I was no longer writing solely because I was compelled to write. I had begun to clutch on to my writing production as a passport into a beguiling future. I was writing my way into a literary Shangri-La that would save me from the monotony and drudgery of regular life. Every published piece brought me closer to my imagined tomorrow, a tomorrow in which ever word I uttered would be a beacon of brilliance ushering dispirited masses into transformation, rapture and enlightenment. ☺ This idea of writing, this ironclad certainty that everything I wrote would become a brick on my road to literary success was not fueled by the hard work of creating and editing and engaging with ideas. It was engaged by my very real need to believe in a charmed future—a tall, dark, and handsome stranger, if you will—that would exempt me from grappling with the mundane realities of life.
I have felt unmoored over the past few years, no longer knowing who I am in the absence of writing. I have lost that future vision of myself and been stricken with the fear that if I continue to not-write, I have failed to live up to my talent and my potential. Furiously churning out quality work was my insurance, my guarantee that I was stepping into a well-deserved, acclaim-rich, literary future.
After years of attempting to force myself to keep writing, I have come to the conclusion that my fantasy for my future was a bit overwrought. I still nurture the dream of fulfilling my talents as a writer but I no longer wear the dream like a name tag. I may or may not become—as I’ve always imagined I would—one of the most important writers of the 21st century. But I now know that being a writer is not the real fulfillment of my dream. The real fulfillment of my dream is to be a healthy, balanced, creative, and productive person. My one and only dream is to live a joyful present as I step into a joyful future. If I never write another word in my life (and clearly that’s not going to happen, because here I am writing to all of you), I will not have failed to live up to my potential. In fact, it is impossible for me to fail to live up to my possibility because who I am and everything I do is my possibility. As a non-writing writer, I can still go to conferences and sit on podiums and talk about my work. As an inactive author, I can present something I wrote five years ago. I don’t have to spend my life executing a five-point plan to become the writer I always knew I was meant to be; I just need to be the person I am.
The secret to achieving with ease is moving through life with no drag—no woulda-shoulda-coulda’s clinging to your ankles; no I’m-not-doing-it-right’s hanging around your neck; no I’ve-lost-my-mojo dripping from your breath. And certainly no gold-plated futures that make you feel crappy about all you’re not doing in the present. To achieve with ease you must say, I am okay with myself. I am enough, I’ve done enough, and everything I do from this point on will take me to where I need to go. So in 2008, I have a new credo for all my writer-selves (and for any of my fellow artists who may be grappling with the same issue). I say: all that you have done up until this point is complete in and of itself. It is not a precursor to what is to come. It is not a signal of great promise. It is, in and of itself, an oeuvre and it is enough. Whatever is yet to come is coming at its own pace in its own time.
The circle is complete. Happy 2008.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam