On The Beautiful Futility Of Writing
By July Westhale
When I was in high school, I worked full-time at a bait and tackle shop in my rundown, Sacramento Valley orchard town of Winters. It was my first steady job, and I was saving up to buy my friend’s piece-of-shit Volkswagen, which was currently hoisted up on cinder blocks and missing an engine, as far as I could tell. But it was red, and I knew enough about ’72 Bugs to know that they sounded like jet planes when you got in them, and that the speaker system was pretty decent.
My schedule was damn good for a high schooler: I had the 3:30 am-noon shift, which allowed me to have my days free during the summer and to work during my free period during the school year. I was usually in bed before my parents came home and out of the house before anyone woke up, and I’d get off by the time my friends were just waking up.
Often, it felt like I lived in a town occupied by no one.
But despite what you may be thinking — oohh, all that existential solitude — there’s nothing romantic about working in a bait shop. When I wasn’t filling up rusting pails with live minnows or getting pints of squirming meal-worms from the back fridge, I was dusting the taxidermied heads of game that the town folks had caught. I was selling porno mags to people I knew, and bullets and kegs to people I didn’t, usually at the same time.
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Until the owners put in a coffee bar, everything I did during my shift revolved around animals, dead or alive. Even after I was taught to man the espresso station, I served black coffee to fishermen who smelled like everything I sold them.
It wasn’t a bad gig, though — it paid decently, I got all the coffee I wanted, and I got a free fishing license, which mostly meant rainbow trout.
Still, there was one downfall. And it was a big one.
O, brethren of lobsters, delicacies of hotter U.S. climates and their low country boil, feeding ground for fish of Northeastern California freshwater — how you drove me to panic.
Shift after shift, for hours on end, I listened to the monotonous din of their feet tap tap tapping on the continuously water-fed plastic bins near my cash register, frantically attempting to escape the blue plastic hell created for them, their little legs beating time like the bait shop’s “Tell-Tale Heart.”
My feelings weren’t murderous, however. They were more nuanced, more complicated. What I felt was the discomfort that accompanies seeing great suffering, and doing nothing about it.
The morning after my junior prom, I rode my bike to work in my red dress, an old flamenco number with a a train I’d wrapped around my waist to keep it from getting caught in the chain. I’d stayed up the entire night making out with my boyfriend in the orchard his dad owned. We probed one another’s mouths in his punk-rock white Ford Focus with a bumper covered in faded emblems of Monster Squad, Pop Gun Massacre, and the obligatory Rancid. I hadn’t bothered to change before my shift, and took secret thrill in the idea of scooping minnows and selling cigarettes to early morning fisherman in a red so sexual my cheeks burned.
But that never happened.
As I rode up to the store, broken glass gleamed and crunched beneath my tires; it took mere seconds to discover someone had launched a rock through the front door, and only minutes after to realize that the crawdads had braved the sharp shards to escape through the rock-hole and disappear.
If crawdads are anything like their lobster cousins, they have the ability to create ladders with their bodies and help each other escape, as my punk-rock boyfriend and I discovered when we broke into a Red Lobster one time to set all the sea folk free.
So I imagined that there in the dusky dark of pre-morning, dozens and dozens of crawdads had locked claws and tap tap tapped atop the backs of their brothers on their journey to freedom. This thought made me feel like someone had taken the lid off a pressure cooker inside my ribs; no longer did I have to face my own impotence and cruelty due to lack of action.
And if the crawdads were smart enough to help one another climb down four feet of sheer blue plastic with no tread, then surely they’d have made it to the creek across the parking lot.
I unlocked the door, dragging my red train through the glass and water, and felt suddenly, magnificently grateful for the resilience of the world, for the brackish new hovel the crawdads must have been settling into in the cover of predawn.
The crawdads had been spared, and so had I.
This is where the story should stop. If this were fiction, and I were kinder to readers, I would turn this into a Wind in the Willows narrative, a crawdad-driven story complete with a system of legislature and citizenship, class politics and romantic entanglements.
But this is actually a story about poetry.
And therefore, it is a story about futility.
During my lunch break, when I’d gone around to the back restroom to change into the khakis and polo shirt my job required, I discovered that the world was not as magnificent as I’d hoped for. The crawdads had made it out of their plastic tract homes, yes. They had, as I’d hoped, beelined for the creek. But somehow, at some time before my 3:30 arrival, all hope and migration and desire for a better life had been squashed.
From the looks of it, an 18-wheeler had chosen the exact moment of the great crawdad escape to pull into the lot to gas up. The matte their bodies became after flattening under his tires was almost impossible to discern from the sludge and gravel of the parking lot. It was absolute, utter, terrific carnage. And the worst of it was that the creek lay about 15 feet from where they died — and because they were bred in captivity, they never got to touch it.
I can only be certain, in this story, of my own emotional landscape, of my own comprehension of the sheer futility of the situation. But this has never been a story about crawdads, though the story, as it remains, is a true one. Instead, it’s a story of the world. No, not that grandiose. It’s a story about process, about poetry.
As I’m writing this, I’ve just finished a book-length poetry manuscript while on fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center, in utter solitude, with nothing but time and a lack of accountability so ripe it fed the beast of my voraciousness for a solid month.
Yet nearly two months since coming back home to Oakland, I’ve yet to write a single poem of substance. I’ve repopulated what I call my poem junkyard or my poem freight and salvage, but I’ve not completed a poem. Intellectually, I understand how poetry and writing is a process of filling and emptying the well: of elation (with the blush of a new poem/project/reading/roundtable/lecture), study (the contentedness of connecting to a larger literary community through the art of close reading and engaging in discourse), and then bewilderment/self-doubt/frustration/impotence.
I suddenly feel as if I’ve forgotten how to write a poem. The more information I read in craft books, the more I study the poems of others, the more I talk to my therapist about how much I need and crave my ritualized practice — the less I feel like I understand what the hell I’m doing.
I love poetry fiercely. And getting an MFA feels like a giant blessing, absolutely — you pay or are paid for the patronage of time and space, the validation of artistic identity, and the ability to work with those who came before you — but the MFA reinforces the simulated industry of the big plastic bin. And the mania that I feel at conferences and residencies and retreats sometimes feels to me like a big scurrying of legs, a climbing on top of one another. And getting nowhere.
This frantic sense of futility is also present at the writing desk. You get your ass in the chair, and sometimes you knock it out of the park, and sometimes you write yourself into a parking lot where a semi-truck waits to grind you into the ground.
I once attended a lecture by Alice McDermott where she brilliantly likened the writing process to Robinson Crusoe. She said that writers — and this is likely widely applicable to all artists — are not only bound to shipwreck, they are actually attracted to it, subconsciously or consciously. Futility and impermanence and existential anxiety are part of the ways we reframe the world through the lens of deeper knowing. It seems counter-intuitive: not-knowing in order to know. Not-being in order to be. But what if the crisis, as traumatic as it can be sometimes, is actually a gift, one that allows for the re-seeing of the world in a realistic way?
I’m of the opinion that community and identity are formed and based on the seismic activity of trauma and fragmentation. If you look at great movements of art — Modernism, Cubism, Romanticism, even the poetry of the AIDS crisis — you’ll see that artists and communities are always attempting to create new ways of gaining footing in a constantly-rocking world. They are always attempting to self-correct, or self-improve. And because seismic destruction is so dramatically different every time it happens, there is no specific guidebook for understanding how to create in the wake of a natural disaster.
For my 17-year-old, scarlet-silk-dress-bedecked self, the crawdad incident was not my first lesson in futility, but it was my first lesson in how futility can be an organic process. There is obviously nothing organic about a big-ass truck, but calamity is just about the most natural thing in the world.
For those of us born in captivity — and I maintain that most of us are, far from the wild, unaware of seasons, disconnected from our otherwise perfect ecosystems — it’s important to remember that returning to said wild is only one part of the goal of creating.
The creek lays across an expanse of existential crisis, and we need to set out many, many times, on many, many paths, just to catch a glimpse of it.
Illustrations by Barbara Moura