Ghost Stories

Last night, after I got home from the office, I sat down on my bed and didn’t get up for the rest of the evening. Though I didn’t fall asleep and it wasn’t restful per se, my body quit on me hours before I was ready for it to clock out for the day. The same was also true for my brain. I tried to force my self back into a functional state, but my signal was set to roaming. I told my other half I was tired but really had no reason to be. What had I done all day? I sat at my desk and wrote, enjoyed a midafternoon snack of fresh fruit, made a healthy dinner at home and watched MasterChef Junior. I was so tired I couldn’t even cry during the show—something that tends to happen when I see wunderkinds do amazing things on TV. Usually, a good cry serves as an effective dam-breaker. Tears condensate on the corners of my eyelids, then little pools form as the tears collect themselves and soon, tiny rivers of salty water meander their way down through the wrinkle inlets on my face. It’s a profoundly cathartic process and afterward, I feel about thirty pounds lighter. But last night, that release never materialized. After about an hour of emotionally constipated questioning, my subconscious woke up and I blurted, I’m emotionally exhausted. From what? Writing.

I write every day but this week, the pieces I’ve been writing have been deeply-rooted personal tomes–the sort of work that requires a team effort to produce. The team this week included reflection, confession, forgiveness, and repeated deep-digging. Some people call this soul searching but for me as a writer, I see it more as a tilling of the spirit.

Writing has provided me with a freedom unlike any I’ve felt in my life. At sixteen years old, I was given a journal from my drama team students as a thank you gift and though I’d never thought of journaling before, once I started I never stopped. Journaling became an unfiltered outlet; the key that unlocked my self to myself. From those early journals to the blogs of my college experience to the essays I’m crafting today, writing in all its forms has felt like freedom; the freedom of hang-gliding; of jumping in the pool during a Texas summer. More so, I love the sculpting and shaping that takes place during the editing process. For me, that’s the adventure part of writing and I feel I’m at my most Indiana Jones when I’m editing. But as freeing as writing is, sometimes the process of getting a first draft onto the page is akin to pushing a T-Rex back into its cage.

Had I been writing a spry little story about my self-initiated neighborhood soccer league as a kid, I wouldn’t feel this exhausted. I’d write the story, laugh at my own pre-adolescent self-virtue and move on with my day. But what I’ve been writing cuts to the bone of who I am; it reaches to the support pillars that hold up this messy, furry man and allow him to stand proudly in his own work-in-process. Pastors who hurt me, a friend I was forced to alienate for my own mental wellbeing, the complicated terrain of post-adolescent playground politics–these were the moments I’ve been writing about. Though forgiveness, time and distance have long provided bridges with which to move on, rediscovering these memories and inhabiting the ghosts of those feelings has left me utterly exhausted.

That’s what writers do, we inhabit ghosts. They’re either fictional ghosts that bear a resemblance to real people or they’re the ghosts of our pasts. Some ghosts have long since passed on and some still lurk around the corner of the cave, tucked away and forgotten about until boo!, they reappear. As someone who writes primarily about his own life, I’ve had to confront a great many ghosts in order to honestly tell their stories—a literary séance of sorts—and my laptop screen has become a sort of campfire around which I share them.

Writing deep truths requires churning up things that’ve long stilled; the silt that’s settled on the seabed. I watch a fair amount of historical discovery shows and whenever someone cave dives to uncover treasure or bones or mermaids, they have to be careful not to disturb the silt at the bottom of the cave water. Its lay calm and untouched for years, but inevitably, the explorer or their camera crew will bump the silt, causing it to animate into cloudy tufts and transforme the water from a pristine clear landscape into a murky sandstorm with zero visibility. The explorers then have to wait out the mushroom cloud and allow the silt to settle on its own before they can continue their excavation.

My life as a writer mirrors this except I intentionally stir up the silt. It’s a great day, the air is clear and the water is fine. I’m ready to write and I’ve caught an idea that has me excited. But the nature of the dig isn’t to dwell in the cool waters of a good idea, it’s to dig in and find the things trapped in the silt: the fossils and shells and seeds that never grew. So I dig in and grab at them—a fresh excavation of myself—and in doing so, a cloud of memories, ideas and conflicts animates. That’s when I can start writing, rediscovering and inhabiting what I’ve dug up. People, places, feelings, conversations, consequences—I pull them back on like fishing waders that allow me to step into the river of my past. I relive and reprocess, fighting with and making sense of my discoveries until I can’t anymore. Then, when I’ve written all I can and I step out of that cloud, the silt needs to settle before I can decide where to sift next. Then I do it all over again. It’s remarkable. It’s rewarding. It’s exhausting.

If it’s so exhausting, quit digging up the past, dummy.

I really don’t live in the past, but writing about my life requires revisiting what’s led up to today. It’s not all cumbersome and weighty, but some of it is. Those things some might say they’ve “blocked out” or “don’t need to revisit” are precisely the things writers dig for. By making sense of those moments through the prism of hindsight, I’m actually making sense of the world around me today.

Writing about my self comes naturally because it’s my story to tell, yet my story intersects with countless others and not all of those intersections ended well. Anne Lamott said, “Every single thing that happened to you is yours and you get to tell it. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” While that’s true, writing about people who gave my life deep meaning but who also caused deep pain is tough; like writing in quicksand. They’re the ghosts I reluctantly revisit and they’re the ghosts that take longer to shake free. Some linger for hours, some for days, but they all feel as real and tangible today as they did all those years ago. And that’s why I’m exhausted. I’m trying to shake free ghosts that aren’t yet ready to let go.

Recently, I saw Nia Vardolos lead the cast of Tiny Beautiful Things, the play based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, at the Public Theater. Jerry Seinfeld sat three rows behind me, something you’d think I’d be used to by now living in New York and seeing notable people out and about, but I still think it’s impossibly cool. There, I witnessed her portrayal of Strayed as the anonymous advice columnist Sugar. Nia-as-Cheryl-as-Sugar grapples with the questions sent to her and the responses she’ll send back, telling her story in the hopes of helping someone else with theirs. She and the cast moved and shook me like vibrant quakes. Tears seeped out of my eyes as I felt the connection a writer can have with an audience come alive before me.

In both the play and the book I’ve since devoured, Strayed bears her personal life—the trials and triumphs, the things she could control and the things she couldn’t—inhabiting those ghosts for the purpose of sharing them with others. Then those ghosts were reanimated on stage, her ghosts and the ghosts of those who wrote to her. Their stories pierced my heart like the wraith that stabbed Frodo and stayed with me long after I left the theater.

I’ve often wondered if others feel the world in the same expressed way I do and sitting there experiencing that play, it affirmed those crinkled up question marks in my mind. I read books on writing by writers much more efficient and effective than I’ll ever be and while I’m challenged by them, I also find myself feeling kindred. Me—unpublished, non-optioned, not a best seller me—can feel kindred to writers of unimaginable renown. The reason is they’re trying to make sense of the world just like I am, telling their ghost stories around their laptop campfires.

I’ve found I exist in two worlds. There’s the self-aware writer world and there’s the world of being present in daily life. A balance needs to exist between the two and I’m fairly certain I’ll spend the rest of my life searching for it. In the play that night, there was a line that made me think of a memory and I needed to write it down lest it flutter away. I’ve spent days and weeks of my life frustrated that a moment of meaning slipped through my pen-less fingers so I knew I needed to write it down. At the same time, I was trying to remain present for the rest of the play. These two concepts don’t work well together. After a few minutes of being distracted, I reached blindly to find a pen in my bag, wrote a single key word on my hand to remind me later of this memory and was then able to go back to paying attention to the play. I feel like I spend much of my life in this way, trying to be present while also hovering over myself like an astral projection, monitoring what’s happening and taking mental notes. It’s once those notes land on the page that I can start digging; allowing my past to resurface in all its beauty and sometimes ugliness. Then I’m editing it, rewriting it, meditating on it and editing it again. Laying on my bed last night, I finally grasped how exhausting this has become.

But just when I think I’m so exhausted I’ll never try again, I’m reminded how exhilarating it is to get to do this. The freedom of writing is far greater than the struggle of it and on nights when I don’t think another good sentence will ever be written by my hand, I close my eyes and let my body reset. That reset sometimes takes an evening and sometimes longer, but it always happens. Eventually, I find myself ready to dig again. I can’t help it. It’s what I love and I’m addicted to it. I love drawing out the self in my brain like Dumbledore with his Pensieve, pulling on the stringy, wispy moments of my life and dropping them into a page that can be re-lived again and again. It’s actual magic, real life time travel, and we writers get to do it. How divine.

When I finally surrendered to my clocked-out body last night, I slept in the deep cool hum of the air conditioner. I dreamt of puppies and potbellied piglets, hundreds of them, playing on the beach. They ran and barked and snorted and danced in the sand and the water with me, carefree. When I woke up this morning, I thought, I’ll write about this.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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