BlogEnthusiams , Remembrances , Writing

In the Summer You Really Know: on living, writing and not publishing

Summer has always been my least favorite season and, weirdly, my most productive one. Being that for most of my life I’ve been immersed in academia in one form or another, early June to late August is a period of time that has always been mildly obligation-free for me. I’ve taught classes and worked in writing centers and freelanced but I’ve always had more free time in the summer than in any other time of the year. The last two years I was fortunate enough to be able to travel abroad—Iceland, Berlin, Bruges—while also working on writing and this summer I’ve been traveling again, albeit domestically—Ashland, Oregon, Reno, Nevada, Denver, Colorado. I’m very very lucky, although being that I recently I quit my Nebraskan academic gig and will soon be living back in Portland, Oregon sans steady employment the luck might be shifting just a bit in the future.

That being said, I’m not a summer person by any means. I don’t like the beach nor the heat nor, to be perfectly honest, the sun and its encumbering rays. As the owner of a 10-year-old dog, it’s tough watching Beckett pant and writhe against the seemingly baked-in humidity (at least here in Omaha, where I’ve lived for the past two years) and it’s equally tough knowing that I have to walk him lest he get sluggish and torpid stuck indoors. My idea of a nice day in summer takes place in mid-October, with a temperature of 72 degrees and the foliage burnt to a nice camouflage, green and brown and black. The sun might be out a little but just as often it’s overcast, intriguing shadows abounding everywhere.

To escape, I’ve traveled during the summer, but I’ve simultaneously also worked on writing as much as possible. Three years ago I wrote a play that took place in one of those little mini Starbucks coffee shops that can be found in the front of certain grocery stores. Two years ago I worked on a long essay about a school of poetry that I thin-air invented and last year I wrote a short non-fiction book about The Notorious B.I.G., skateboarding and poetry. Published into the world, some of those projects eventually saw the light of day whereas others still live on random flash drives and my old laptop hard drive. For me, though, the doing of the writing was probably just as important as the getting it into the world.

Being that I’ve invariably had time on my hands, my latent Protestant work ethic always kicks into overdrive in the summer; I feel like if I’m not using the day as productively as possible then I’m blowing it in some major way. I think the mark of a serious writer is to be obsessive but at the same time I think the mark of a fully functioning human is to be able to navigate the difference between need and want. Loitering at a coffeeshop or stuck at my desk in my apartment, forever hoping to beat the heat, in the summer I often want to write but at different points in my life that desire has morphed into a need to write. This, then, can be unhealthy, especially if a significant amount of one’s self-worth is being put into the work, whether it’s good, is publishable or worth publishing, etc, etc.

I started writing seriously a decade ago, when I was 24, and for most of that time, then, publishing and being published was a paramount concern of mine; if that didn’t happen, what was the point? To a degree I still feel this way, especially about longer, more time-consuming projects. But as I’ve gotten older and wrote more I now increasingly care as much about what’s lost or discarded, what will never see the light of day. Sadly, I’m a packrat. And being that I’m just days away from moving across the country, for the last couple of weeks I’ve been going through old books and boxes and have found endless scraps of paper with the discarded beginnings of so many never to be written essays or poems. We are who we are by what we fear but what if there’s somewhere a sluice that— reads the beginning of one never-completed tidbit. Another states: I throw the black snowball as hard as I can in the air, then run to catch it in front of me, behind. Why spend your whole life living under the tyranny of white snow?  I don’t know where things might go from there (will the snow eventually melt? will the snowball blossom into an  ice storm?) as I don’t even remember writing that. I found it on an otherwise blank slip of paper in the back of my copy of James Richardson’s Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms.

Who knows if he ever actually said it, but in Ernest Hemingway’s “memoir” A Moveable Feast the now-forgotten writer Evan Shipman is purported to have declared: “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.” Since Shipman’s era (he died in 1957 and did most of his writing between the 1920s and 1950s) times have changed, of course, but his assertions are still worth considering and thinking through today. Certainly they’re ones that I’ve pondered more and more as I’ve aged out of my twenties and into my thirties. Writing for the fences, especially during the summer months, I’ve always kept my eye on the prize, but the nature of that prize has fundamentally changed the older I’ve gotten. Currently I’m not sure what it is or where it lives, but I’m nevertheless still writing to find out.

Sad and languorous, “In the Summer’s When You Really Know” is a song by the now-defunct band Jets to Brazil. For me at least, it’s the perfect summer song in that it encapsulates the way that season often makes me feel. Blake Schwarzenbach, Jets to Brazil’s lead singer, is singing about a forsaken love affair but while doing that he’s also listing all the ways that summer can necessarily fail a person. Only in disliking it, then, can my appreciation for summer be found. During it I’ve learned more about my self than in any other season.