Sleeping Like Other People (or, Writing with Others)

by Ioanna Carlsen

I have a night out with the “girls”—what we do is write. Maybe it’s a kind of therapy, but I think we have something else on our minds. I think we are trying to be something rather than understanding what we are—we’re trying to be people who write.

One night a week this winter, even in snow, always in darkness, we leave our various lives and drive to an apartment downtown and write for ten minutes and then read what we’ve written. We do this three or four times during the two hours we spend in a room cluttered with chairs and filled with the scratching of pens moving across paper and the intermittent noise of a space heater.

We come from different parts of town—some of us are always late. We are all very different—some of us miss class occasionally, some of us never do. Some of us have families we have left to come here, others go back home to an empty house. But at some point, in writing, we all stumble onto the same things—mothers, husbands or lovers, and death. What we know of each other we find out here, in these fragments from our lives that get elicited by the subjects our clever teacher puts before us.

Altars, she says, or Porches, and everybody—their heads bent over blank paper, one with her boot heel stuck on a rung, another with red nails holding a blue pen—writes until the teacher, looking at her watch while winding down on her own piece, says stop.

Why do we want to be people who write—why are we here instead of putting children to sleep, or quarreling with a husband, or making soup? For all I know, some of us want to learn how to keep a journal, or some just want to get in the habit of writing, or some just want to meet others who write. And doubtless there are some of us who want more…one or two will be wanting the secret, the one that takes interesting ten-minute writings and turns them into stories or poems.

Some of us are shy and just trying their hand at this craft; some of us are old hands at it, and given the usual ten minutes will often produce a fairly finished piece, rounded out with a beginning, a middle, and end. But dutifully we all begin when told to and push a pen across a page on the subject of Aunts, or Moving, or The White Shirt, until time is up. Most of us will get no further than this class; one of us actually got published; most of us come back again.

Writing in class shows you, even if you’re an old hand, that you can write about anything and make it your own. Any subject, however odd, turns into a path you can follow into yourself. You can see your mind showing the direction it likes to take, the corners it wants to hop down into, the darker streets it turns down, and even the dead ends where it stops. You start to recognize your subjects, and the places you don’t want to go, which are, supposedly, just the places you should go.

Sometimes you stumble onto a subject that’s really “hot” for you. It could be anything, a phrase like “your tone has an attitude,” or “It was a common thing, “she said, “that you see in the city.” It could be anything, but it’s not—suddenly you’re deep in your own territory, writing about what you’d thought you’d forgotten, remembering what you didn’t know you knew.

You may not be sure of everyone’s name, but it would be easy to read through a pile of writings at the end of an exercise and attach each one to its writer. “What is Sylvia’s secret?” To one of us it is that she doesn’t have one, another doesn’t care and uses this as an excuse to write about a sunset, to another it’s erotic, to someone else it’s a mouse. You never know what oddity in the subject each person will hook onto, dragging it into the peculiar and idiosyncratic net of their life—those specific things it is only theirs to show. “My mother calls every week; after she hangs up I always cry.” Only one person in the class could have written that—the rest of us jot it down and take it home with us, maybe see where it gets us, and, for sure, think about it when our mother calls, or doesn’t.

Choosing to write for ten minutes on a given subject trains you to write at a moment’s notice, teaches you that writing can be a habit. E.B. White said that he found writing tiring because he had to look at everything as a possible subject. Everyone in class is getting to know what he meant. They also probably understand what Thurber’s wife meant when she said, (rather irritably I imagine), to him at a party, “James, stop writing.”

Some of us will return to comfortable houses, leaving what they did in class behind; but some will go home as to a cool cellar in which what they did in class will ferment like wine. Some of us will get the bug, if they didn’t already have it, of writing every day, writing in the mornings when the kids are at school, or at a bar after work, or while the phone rings and the timer on the stove buzzes. Some of us will write in the afternoon, and wonder where it went, and why it was so much fun losing it, and looking down, find whatever it was that was so engrossing—those black and gold high heels you wore last week-end, and where they went on paper.

After you’ve been looking at things this way long enough you can’t stop. Sometimes you get into bed and it’s late and the lights are off and you see a star outside the window just above the alarm clock’s round orange face on the sill—they’re parallel, defined by a window pane, and you think, I’m so tired, please don’t be an idea, please let me just sleep like other people.

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Ioanna self portrait croppedIoanna Carlsen’s poems and stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including AGNI, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train Stories. She received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry, and won the 2002 Glimmer Train Poetry Open. In 2014 she published a poetry collection called The Whisperer. She lives in the country outside Santa Fe, NM. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

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