WaitingPosted: January 19, 2015
On Wednesday I asked the students in my class to describe what they’d been doing earlier in the day, before our afternoon session began. While they scribbled I wrote alongside them, producing a dull summary of actions and toil—until I came to waiting …
There is always waiting. It begins in the still-dark morning when my dog barks at a sound I can’t hear. I wait for R. to get out of bed and take her outside so I can go back to sleep. But really so I can go back to waiting.
If you want to write, there’s no way around waiting. Over waiting the writer has no control. Oh, I’m in charge in the sense that I can follow a routine known to be helpful to the production of words. Keep to a schedule is one common suggestion. But there is mystery in writing. Who can say why one day, seated before my screen at seven in the morning, nothing but verbal clutter comes, and the next day, seated at seven, I put together words that have never before been arranged in just that way. Both days are born out of me and my life, and yet I don’t have control over them. I can only put myself in a position from which something good may come. And then I wait.
If you’re a writer, there is always waiting. Send off a submission and bide your time until the results come in. I used to print out my work, meticulously compose a cover letter, prepare my SASE with a stamp that seemed right for the occasion, slide it into a larger envelope so there were no creases, take the assembled whole to the post office, and hand it to the clerk, all with the seriousness of great expectations. A deliberate and time-consuming process. After counting a few days for transit in each direction, I began to wait for an answer in the mail, which meant attending on each afternoon’s delivery. Each day the truck with little tires would make its stop at the end of my driveway. There was something deliberate about walking out to the mailbox, pulling out the envelopes, magazines, and catalogs, flipping through to see if an editor had replied. Most often there was nothing, each day a little death. (How many jokes did Shakespeare make about that? “I will live in thy heart, die in thy lap, and be buried in thy eyes.”) And then the rebirth of waiting, until at last rejection or acceptance came, sometimes signed with a real signature. Sometimes there were real words on the sheet of paper, written by pen and hand. The verdict had heft, a weight that matched the seriousness of the waiting.
Nowadays submissions are handled by Submittable, that anonymous and efficient online service. I log into my account and upload my essay, maybe pay a fee, and my process is done. I still wait, but the waiting is not the same. It has no cycle, no order determined by the earth’s rotation. Waiting is a continuous hum of the nerves that can continue for months or even years, as if one were a hunger artist.
Or there can be no waiting at all. I once submitted online to a journal and was rejected twenty minutes later. I uploaded my essay at 7:30 p.m. and by 7:50 p.m. had been repelled without comment. I shot off an aggrieved message to the editor, doubting that anyone could evaluate an eighteen-page essay in so short a time, certainly not with care. The editor replied that she had given my essay every consideration.
So there are things worse than waiting. One must be patient, I tell myself. Worrying won’t hurry the process along, and the outcome, or verdict as I prefer to think of it, is more likely a resounding no than a joyful yes. I think of myself as a defendant standing in the courtroom, listening for the jury’s decision. Whether the verdict is a yes or no, I have no power to direct its course. Someone else has presented my case, and I must remain silent and stoic. That’s why they call it a submission—you submit to another person’s power. Depending on the verdict, I will either turn and embrace my supporters, if there are any, or be led from the courtroom and back to my cell.
Some mornings I feel sure a no is barreling toward me to lodge in my inbox. Perhaps it was delivered overnight while I slept and is now coyly poised to spring at my unprotected eyes. Sometimes, unsuspecting, I innocently open my email, but sometimes I sense, like a barking dog, that something troubling watches me, even though I can’t see it.
Some people are crestfallen when the cake comes out heavy or the pizza slides off the stone or the zipper won’t zip, but those failures stun me little. They roll off because I have invested nothing in them to begin with. But writing is another matter. To write is to give with all of myself, to feel that what I am doing matters, even if the subject is small, invisible, unmoving. Writing is entire. And so I react with the entire self when word comes back from the world.
I crave nightfall, the end of the day, when waiting is over, and I am wrapped in the fur of dogs, the touch of love, and sleep. Waiting is the condition of our birth, our waking, what we’re born into, this lovesickness or homesickness, the lump in our throats that will only clear when we can wait no more.