Headache, day 14…

… but I’m not complaining.

Twenty years ago, I was wearing braces, engaged to a garage-band drummer, trying to learn how to write. As of two weeks ago, I have come full circle. Old drummer guy is long gone, but my almost-11-year-old daughter just bought her own set of drums and is beating out some cool rhythms. (The man I married 17 years ago – not the drummer — has said he might be willing to try learning the bass.)

And two weeks ago, I got braces. Again.

It’s more than cosmetic – I have a jaw problem that goes back decades, small screws from an old botched surgery hidden in my bones, and a date with an oral surgeon sometime after this recession ends. I’m a little embarrassed to be metal-mouthed and lisping after all this time, but I’m pleased to be attacking this medical problem before I have no teeth or jaw bones left to correct.

There’s no Alaska connection to all this (no oil spill connection either, despite the anniversary theme), but there it is a writing connection. It hit me this week, as I was souring my stomach on too much Advil and trying to remember that I paid good money for this pain, that twenty years ago I desperately wanted to write and didn’t have a clue where to start, except by sitting down and getting started. I understood I had a long road ahead. I figured it might take a while – years — to become competent.

Here’s what I know now. The road to competency is longer than I imagined, by a factor of about ten. Writing is a good start, but reading is equally essential. I didn’t take my fiction self-education seriously until about 7 years ago, and I’m still catching up. It’s a pleasure, of course – but sometimes I worry I’m not making headway fast enough.

In connection with a newly released biography, the New York Times ran a touching portrait of John Cheever the other day (hidden homosexuality, joyless marriage and fatherhood, alcoholism, but nearly every sentence the man wrote – even in his journals – was, evidently, testament to his genius.) The NYT said, rather ominously, that as famous as he was in his time, Cheever has “largely faded from the literary map.” Say it isn’t so! I add the somewhat-forgotten Cheever novel, “Falconer,” to my long-term reading list, and feel guilty I don’t own any of his story collections.

A few days earlier, while my kids were watching a Harry Potter video, I was curled up on the couch next to them, reading a horrifyingly depressing but wonderfully acute New Yorker bio of David Foster Wallace, who ended his life last fall at the age of 46, having suffered from deep depression for at least 20 years. Another brilliant and tormented wordsmith. It’s surprising he managed to write at all, given the profundity of his illness. (A bad headache is enough to put me off writing, as I’ve been reminded for about 14 straight days now; imagine trying to write through paralyzing depression.)

I think about these two men, and I am aware of my own limitations as a writer, and as a reader. It makes me want to honor them by reading them, to honor myself by working harder, to fight the limitations of time and mortality.

And then there’s this other, secondary thought: Wait a minute. Amid all this reverence and awe and appropriate envy of great writing minds, I’m nearly forgetting: I’ve got a nice life, one I try (and sometimes forget) to feel grateful about every single day. I’m healthy and happy, most of the time, when I’m not plagued with writing-related self-doubts or financial worry, but I accepted that bargain a long time ago. I have the life I wanted 20 years ago – minus the straight teeth and healthy jaws. But I’m working on that, just as I’m still working, harder than ever, on learning how to write.

Would I trade any of the good things in my life for even a glimmer of the greater genius of our best contemporary writers? There is something intriguing and disturbing about the notion of such Faustian bargains. (Or maybe it’s just the screws in my head, picking up the electricity of dark thoughts.) But no, I don’t think so. I’d rather read the works of Cheever and Wallace than experience their suffering firsthand. And I’m grateful to them for making the most of their talent, and granting all of us another chance to better understand the human condition.

R.I.P. David Foster Wallace, long live the memory of John Cheever; cheers to straight teeth, reading lists, and other forms of minor self-improvement and repair. And blessings on the mental health of all writers, famous or obscure.

6 thoughts on “Headache, day 14…”

  1. How wonderful you let us know this–your blog now has the perfect balance between the bigger world/hyperlinks (blog basis!) and personal struggle. Meaningful to those of us struggling and thinking all those Great Alaskan Writers live blessedly perfect lives. You nailed it! Ooops– that must have hurt!

  2. Thanks for writing a beautiful piece despite real screws in your head. More than twenty years ago I had my own jaw trauma (fractured on one side, dislocated on the other). It healed without leaving artifacts other than a permanently crooked angle. But who cares? I’m alive…and grateful for writers who write through the good days and the bad days. You are one of those writers, and I hope your braces do their job, your headaches disappear, an oral surgeon does his magic and you keep doing yours.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Kay, thanks for the kind words of support and Carol, thanks for the commiseration-turned-gratitude.

    On a day like today (another blue-sky day over Anchorage, Spring trying its hardest to melt the snow) it’s easy to have hope for tension-free, headache-free months ahead. Good reading and/or writing to both of you.

  4. I can not imagine fourteen days of a headache…my heart goes out to you, Andromeda! Hope you’re feeling better by now.

  5. Weighing in late on a great post. Watch that Advil consumption. I was taking it daily to ease the pain from my broken greater tuberosity, aka the very top of my arm, where it fits under the shoulder. Better than narcotics, the doctor said. But after a couple of weeks I developed a nasty bruise in, of all places, the spot where my hand rests on the keyboard as I type. (Typing with a sling is “cheating,” the doctor said, but he didn’t forbid it). I guess Advil and Aleve thin the blood and make you prone to bruising. A small worry, compared to the life struggles of Foster and others, as you’ve so aptly pointed out, but one worth note as we wrestle with the minor challenges.

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