Friday, April 1, 2016

Heartbeats per Page

I once came upon a theory that the human heart has a certain, more-or-less set number of heartbeats it can deliver. This number acts as an upper limit. Once you use up your allotted beats, that’s it! A belief in this theory can be developed into an argument against exercise, or any other form of exertion or excitement that gets the heart palpitating. Running for the bus, scary movies and roller-coaster rides, even orgasms, would take minutes (and cumulatively, days, months, years) off of your life span. On the other hand, regular exercise that improves conditioning has the effect of lowering one’s resting or low-activity pulse rate.

I don’t know if there’s anything to this, but it’s got me speculating about writing from a different angle. I’ve been writing my entire life. Is there a set limit on the words I have allotted to me. Will I reach a point where the words just stop coming?

My experience of how my writing has shifted over the years lends credibility to the notion of a limit on words over a period of time, if not an entire lifetime. As a student, I wrote a lot for school. But then I stopped being a student. And what happened? I began journaling. In fact, I began my first journal the very month that I dropped out of university. And – though with a fluctuating regularity – I kept journaling for decades. And then, I stopped. And the end of journaling coincides pretty closely with the time I started blogging. Actually, all this suggests not only an upper limit, but also a lower limit on words. It’s never really rung true to me, but maybe there’s something to the notion that writers write because they have to.

As one who aspired (and still do) to make a career of writing, I’ve always lamented that I write so little. But this self-assessment is based largely on valuing some writing and devaluing other writing. I’ve only had six pieces of writing make it into print, in a publication available to the public, bearing my name, for which I received compensation. That’s 2 short stories, one short-short, and three reflective essays on social issues. It hasn’t been much of a career.

But there’s been so much other writing. There are the boxes of writing bits and pieces accumulated over the years of trying to develop my skills, voice, themes. There are the many more boxfuls of material I discarded because I saw no value or promise in them. There are the hundreds, maybe thousands of computer files, some on the machine I’m using at this moment, but many abandoned with discarded, older desktops and laptops and, yes, word processors, and likely never to be opened again.

There has been lots of work-related writing, too: case notes, proposals, minutes, agendas, lesson plans, evaluations and the like. Some of this has been very important on a personal level, both to me and to my clientele, and I’m as proud of some of it as of anything else I’ve produced. This includes advocacy letters, case summaries attempting to place the arc of a client’s journey into perspective, documents weighing in on program and community issues, or responding to a court or police action and its effects.

Then, there’s the truly personal writing. The emails and letters – occasionally, a poem – to loved ones. Sometimes, I’ve written a letter that has all of me in it, and those instances are very much like the times I’ve thrown myself into a piece of fiction or a creative essay. Once, when I was trying very hard to push my writing to a higher/deeper level, and was experiencing serious self-doubt, I dreamed an entire story. I lived it as I slept, and I awoke with it fresh and vivid in my mind, and ready to pour out onto the page. Another time, while composing a letter/poem to a woman I was deeply in love with, I spent a night of drifting in and out of sleep, rising to consciousness ever so often with words and sentences and small edits. These were instances when I felt almost consumed by the act of writing, like I was disappearing into it. And yet, feeling complete, and nourished and expanded by the experience, which is perhaps what death – that final consummation – is all about.

Certainly, this side of Life is finite. There comes an end to heartbeats and to words, whether measurable or not, whether foreseeable or not. But I’m finding something beautiful here as I contemplate it. In the context of an expanding universe, can death and other endings be seen as anything other than transitions? I don’t know that it really matters. I’m not angling for a kind of pseudo-immortality here. Maybe what I am angling for is a deep resonance, connective tissue, something other than a tidy, summing up. After all, we don’t measure a lifetime by the number of heartbeats. And we don’t weigh words in isolation.

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