I take my coffee black. Each morning when I get up, there is a fog in my mind. It clings sticky to my thoughts and only a bitter brew can clear it away. Coffee is about the only thing I am able to do. I move slow, taking down a mug and setting the water to boiling on the stove. I take out my pour-over cone and filter, measure out the grounds. I look out the window. I begin to think about the day.
I have been writing steadily for fifteen years, and though much of that work has been for personal pleasure, I have recently gotten into the habit of writing for money. I am still working on figuring out how to unite those two ways of writing. First thing in the morning, when my thoughts are still nebulous and strange, I think about the stories I want to tell.
When the water finally boils, I pour it over the grounds. They shift and bloom, swirl upward. As the water drains down, they settle. It takes two pours to fill my mug, so I pour again. I wait. The second pour is always slower than the first. The entire process takes between five to ten minutes, depending on how slow I move.
Lately, everything in my life has slowed way down.
Writing is no different. When the pandemic arrived and I suddenly found myself at home, caught up in what my yoga teacher calls a “brain fog” and unable to write, I struggled. I did not know what to do, or how to do it. I suddenly had a surfeit of free time, and yet all I wanted to was lay in my bed and read trashy novels (I did that for a bit.). When I couldn’t take that anymore, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I went back to my old stories and sorted through them.
In the past eight years, I have written 6 novels and 2 novellas. Some were abandoned after a single draft, some were never finished, and others I have rewritten several times. Not a single one of them has been published. I have loved and hated each one of them, as writers do. Some I still have hope for. As I sat down and pulled out my old work — sorting through files and folders, opening documents and closing them — I began to see those drafts anew.
These were no longer the drafts of rushed stories, desperate versions of a story that I wanted to tell, but had so little time in my life to write. These stories became windows, when I spent the time to look back and reflect on them.
Some days, it is hard to be uncritical. I can see at a glance that this draft was an utter and complete waste of time from the beginning, and that that story is so hopelessly overworked as to be unsaveable. It is easy to judge your own work as a writer, the easiest thing in all the world.
But I am not rereading in order to judge. This time, I am rereading as a student. What can I learn from myself? I wonder. What can I learn about my own writing?
I am not particularly data-oriented, so this work has taken the shape of a long list — with titles and summaries, approximate lengths, lists of characters and settings, and anything else that I can recall. I have reread bits and pieces of my drafts; I have added notes and comments that unspool down the margins of the pages: this character is similar to that one, this type of setting is common across all my stories.
It’s a slow process, full of waiting and wondering. Often, when I start this work, I have to walk away, bake something, watch an episode of something in order for my brain to reset. I feel, as I dig deeper into the stories of my past, that I am digging deeper into myself. I learn more about myself each day — from the types of stories that I like to tell to the types of characters who fascinate me.
It feels a little bit like drinking a good cup of coffee. In the morning, once my cup is ready and steaming, I take a sip. Each one clears away a bit of the fog in my mind. Then, finally, I am ready for the day.
As I sit down to work on my old stories, they reveal more of themselves to me. I am learning from them. Each one is powerfully flawed, and powerfully beautiful. They are flawed revelations.
And each one is like a sip of strong coffee; slowly, surely, they begin to clear the fog away from my mind.