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Camus Beat You to It
By Susan Henderson

For most of my adult life, I've felt an unreasonable and feverish need to write -- even when my ideas of what to write are fragmented at best. In my heart, I'm this close to making it, this close to writing my breakout story; and inside my head are constant, panicked directives:

Write down every idea before it's gone. Use the backs of envelopes and gas receipts if you're driving. On one of those slips is your breakout story:

Amputee obsessively sharpens pencils with his phantom arm.
Girl impresses boy by eating frozen guacamole with her hair barrette.
Mother dances salsa in front of the mirror in a stolen dress.
Suicidal student has habit of sucking on pennies she finds on the street.
Kid sits under basement stairs in a suitcase, watching an unplugged TV set. (Put it in third person so people don't know it's you.)

If you don't write it down, you'll waste your gift.

I drive with a pen between my teeth, holding the paper against the steering wheel when I write. Never mind the honking. I roll the windows up or the hundreds of story ideas littering the passenger seat will blow onto the highway, and then someone else might write my breakout story.

As I pull into the school parking lot to pick up the kids, I wave so it will look like I'm interacting. All the while, I think of the single word I nearly crashed the car to write down: Cavaty.

Correct the spelling later. Cavity, or perhaps the more poetic cavaty, may be the title or theme or guiding image in your unwritten story, the one that's going to be huge.

I ask the boys about their day, but hurry their talk, and also stuff a handful of those papers in my pocket as I drive. I'll type them up as soon as we're home.

Don't let the kids distract you from your work. A single day of silence and no obligations is all you've ever needed to write your story.

Give them something they're not allowed: TV, Cheese Puffs. Then they will think you are a great mother even as you're neglecting them.

I set the boys up in one room while I stay in another. It's only one day, one short day of neglect. And then I'll be present and act like the smiling, laughing mother I appear to be for a few short moments at pick-up time.

Type fast. Don't be distracted by how your hands get veiny when you type. Type the mysterious series of single words: Encased. Stain. Strings. Decapitated. Snare. Plume. Type in the half-sentences and the few short paragraphs. Delete all passive words. Delete words that sound writerly. Delete all clichés. Delete anything not worth crashing your car for.

Now look for a defining conflict, but not so much plot to call it pulp. You're much too good for that. You are a writer of literature. Try on the word Cavity as a title. At least you'll have a first draft.

Don't look at the clock. Don't read what you've written (it'll only discourage you). Just type and believe. This is your calling. But hurry, your productive only-one-short-day-of-neglect day is running out.

Just write anything. Write about an author who is feverishly writing in secret, but wants the story to be flawless, so has only created, after much pain, a single opening sentence. Wait. Camus beat you to it. He also managed to set that crazed and brilliant writer in the center of a plague while your narrator is just sitting in front of a keyboard with The Magic School Bus TV show playing in the background. Fuck Camus. Fuck today.

When I hear my husband pull into the driveway, I hide the evidence -- cover the warm chair at the computer desk with a stack of books, toss the paper scraps, sweep up the hairs, all the weird and coarse ones I pulled out while typing. I grab a laundry basket and focus my eyes outside the window until I can see again.

"Hi," he says. "The house is a disaster."

"I know. The kids came home and it was like a twister hit."

You don't lie often enough to harm things. Besides, everyone will be happy to know you've ordered a pizza.

I stuff the laundry in the machine, and we eat together. Now and then I think of important words floating like little scraps of paper in my mind, but try to push them away. Twice I get up to get someone another piece of pizza, an opportunity to jot down just a couple of words so my mind can be present.

Try, try to spend the two small hours between dinner and bedtime thinking of nothing but the family. Slow down for tuck-ins. You have time; don't hurry the kids to be tired. Listen to every word of their prayers. Thank you for this day. Thank you for bugs, movies, movies like The Iron Giant, and other ones, the good ones. And thank you for books and God and Jesus and life. And deer and their antlers. Thank you for all the things we have. Like blood and bones. Houses and wallpaper. Amen. Sing an extra lullaby.

I step into the shower, questioning my silly pipe dreams, and the amount of anxiety and time wasted for a writer with no book.

You were a pretty girl when you first started calling yourself a writer. Once you couldn't wait to have your picture on the back cover of a book.

I load the toothbrush with paste. Do I really need to become a great writer? Great writers rarely have great families. Camus has a nice author photo, sure, but he was plagued with short-lived marriages, chain-smoking, addictions, and belligerent political rants in place of children. Who wants that life?

My husband throws open the shower door to tell me the latest on Antiques Roadshow: A man had a blanket on the back of his rocking chair for years, and it turns out to be a national treasure.

"The guy was almost crying," he says. "Also, do you want to have sex?"

"Yep," I say with a mouth full of toothpaste.

"Can I come in?"

"No. I'm spitting." I grab the cucumber shower gel and raise my eyebrows so he knows I'm dolling up for him. "I'll be out in two."

But take ten. Because there's another great idea brewing. Maybe there is a story to tell about a mother nearly crashing the car to write random words. Maybe it doesn't have to be as long as a novel. Honestly, selling a story to some magazine with an infinitesimal circulation, a magazine that pays in free contributors' copies, will make you happy. Then you can call yourself a writer. And that will explain why your car looks the way it does, why you're a little flakey and never finish your chores.

I put my nightgown on quietly so I don't wake my husband. Never mind the sex. My period started anyway.

I check on the kids, pick up the stuffed animal that's fallen on the floor, and pull the covers over my ten-year-old son's shoulders. His legs stretch nearly to the end of his little boy bed. When did this happen? I promise myself not to miss his growing up, not to let this writing make me distracted and self-centered. I kiss my six-year-old on the cheek. He's curled into the top corner of his bed, much too small to play alone for so long, or to realize how awful I was today. No one here needs to see me on the back cover of a book.

Back in our bedroom, my husband looks like a little boy when he sleeps, the way he hugs the pillow like a teddy bear. I climb under the sheet, my Maxi Pad rustling as I wrap a leg around him and hold on. When did I stop living my life just so I could write about it?

Make it a priority to be in the moment. Tomorrow. Because he's asleep anyway, and since the light is on, find a pen and any scrap of paper. Write the words "Antiques Roadshow".

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