Thao Nguyen is one of those polymath artists who can pick up any instrument and make it sound like home. Her latest project, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down is a blues-rich, folk-tinged ensemble with lots of rich little touches and sweethearted songs. Visit Thao & The Get Down Stay Down to for interviews and tour dates.
I am a writer: I live in my head most days, and if I do not set timers and automatic devices, I would forget to eat on time or consume adequate amounts of life-giving coffee. When I am writing or thinking about writing (which is almost all of the time), I live not outside of time but between time—I wake to a thin straw of light poking through the barkcloth blackout curtains The Husband built. At night, I go to sleep when it is dark and quiet and the arterial whoosh of cars gives way to the surreal winter bark-amidst-silence of a dog in a backyard two miles away.
Or rather, I should say this is how I think I live—suspended in a neural web of spacelessness and placelessness. Instead I live amidst life in all its screaming glory for I live with dogs, who are the natural champions of joie de vivre. Dogs don’t merely enjoy your presence, they require things of you throughout a given day. The needs of each of the three dogs who live with me (with whom I live) vary, but they more or less follow some pattern—a daily shape that helps me to pay attention, to step out of my own mind and the story unspooling (hopefully) through my fingers onto a page, either digital or physical, but no less real in actuality.
What is a dog but the lovely wagging of his tail?
My dogs keep me anchored here, sunk into my own real-life narrative of meals and tamed caffeinated vices and phone calls and clean laundry, and not that other here where the story has formed a ripe and tempting surface that begs to be sliced open like a pomegranate to allow the seeds to spill forth. That here lives in a luminous fugue of fog over my head—but that here can wait for me to bathe or to return that phone call. It will pause and swirl in place so that I may get down on the floor and roll around with Abelard, a dog who’s been known to grab you by the neck with his single polydactyl front paw to draw your face into a broad lick that swipes your schnoz.
If you’re wondering, that here and this here are not the same here. They don’t really shift and mix into a single soap bubble the way most people imagine writer’s reality and real reality to commingle. Most modern mistakes about writers begin with montages from b-grade movies and end in bad soft jazz. In these movies, you never see the writer writing, you see the writer moving about. They’re speed-walking with a neighbor. They’re browsing through the cozy bookstore. They’re talking over dinner, and it’s all okay because they’re writing in their heads again, all while wearing this year’s trouser and next year’s watch with an unstudied elegance that makes me ball my inky hands into inky fists.
There are reasons that writers have rooms with doors that lock. There are reasons why writers wake up at 4:23 in the morning to write while the rest of the household sidestrokes through a five-fathom sleep in tousled warm beds. There are reasons for the battered sweaters and the old shoes. (Who wants to get ink and newsprint on your good clothes, if you can avoid it?) And there are other reasonable things a writer does not mention because to mention them is to discuss the mechanics of the close magic that maps out the place where writers write. (It has little to do with speed-walking, I assure you.)
…the story has formed a ripe and tempting surface that begs to be sliced open like a pomegranate to allow the seeds to spill forth.
Regarding that close magic, here’s the hardest trick: To even get to that other here takes work. In order to write something new, a writer must put herself into a space akin to a trance state, which can be achieved by the following means: a daily routine that is never broken, a ritual space and/or time to write in which one is not disturbed for the duration of the writing experience; noise or silence—there’s no between on this aspect of writing—you either write with music or white noise or the only music you want to hear is your own words in your own head. And time. Lots and lots of time.
It is irregularity that will destroy the writer’s hyperfocused state— intermittent events of no particular pattern, e.g., the sounds that people make doing all sorts of ordinary everyday things as well as the normal goings-on of dogs. At our house, Abelard lives in the nowest of nows. He’s the most physical of our three canines. When we go to bed at night, it’s Abelard who will fall back into my or The Husband’s arms and asks to be spooned and skritched. It’s Abelard who flea-checks my hair every other day; Abelard who wobbles his girth into most of my desk chair while I sit and write on its precipitous edge. It’s the drowsing Abelard’s damp adenoidal breath deposited directly into my ear that levitates me into the deepest sleep I’ve ever entertained, night after night. As a result, Abelard walks through my dreams and into my stories in a variety of guises.
Abelard lives in the nowest of nows.
But it’s not just him—it’s Ilsa’s cold nose and her warning bark at the door (“Visitors! Visitors! Visitors!”); it’s Monkey’s soft, questing nudge on the leg—(“May we go out now?”; “Will you feed me?”; “Can I sit in your chair?”; “Do you know it’s time for bed?”; “Is this something I can chew up?”). It’s the day and it’s The Husband and it’s the words I will set forth, which live in that supraliminal space between my head and my heart, my inner eye and my outer sight. It’s word meshed to action and action braided to word. It’s the part of my person that knows to get up once an hour from the wrecked Hollywood Regency desk to reach and shout and move around the house. It’s the dogs barking at glossy black Sapo the fence-jumper who never barks back. It’s reading a poem from a book out loud in my office and Abelard sauntering into the doorway to hear it because he thinks the poem is for his ears, and in a way, it is.
It’s the metronomic beat between idea and expression, betwixt thirst and glass and water, behind every gesture I make, even the ones I make at my desk, especially the ones I make at my desk: I studied dance for 20-odd years of my life and to live with dogs and words is to live in the constant space of the dance studio and its sweaty, silent rituals punctuated by the shouts of the teacher in the room: “HIGHER!” “FASTER!” “DO IT AGAIN!”. And so we do.
Some stories are more impossible than others. Take the story of my friend Mark. I’ve been trying to write something about him for nearly three weeks.
Ever since I received the quiet phone call from my friend Phillip regarding Mark’s death, I’ve sat at my desk at varied hours in different arrangements to do just this one thing.
To this end, you would find me here in the morning staring at the French gray walls of my office, and again, in the afternoon, holding my $5 fountain pen over my $2 notebook.
Late at night I remain rooted here— hunched forward, scowling at the screen while a 70 lb. three-legged dog attempts—in a show of loyalty—to co-occupy my office chair as I write.
You could, if you liked, measure him in cultivated silences—because he was a man who considered your question with judicious care before offering an answer.
Or not write, as has been the case, about Mark and Mark’s life.
My stalled fingers hover and tremble at the keys not because of the dog in my chair and not because I’m constantly losing my $5 pen in my cluttered office, and not because I don’t know what to say—because goodness knows I have yet to run out of things to say about everything and everyone, even if it takes me all night or a whole year or a flaming hot deadline to figure out what to say and how to say it.
What has halted me again and again are the facts and the figures.
There is so much of Mark to know, and so many shared experiences with Mark to consider, the tenure of our two-year friendship creaks and wobbles under the weight of all the abundance that is Mark himself.
If you wanted to find the shape and substance of a man like Mark, you could measure him by his heavy shelves of wonderful books or the many gorgeous frames of film he shot in his storied travels.
You could, if you liked, measure him in cultivated silences—because he was a man who considered your question with judicious care before offering an answer.
A person’s life is not a playbook, you see, or a morality tale or a pithy epigram . . .
You could easily measure Mark by his stories, which were legion and inclusive, or by the sweet banter he shared with the love of his life, Dawn.
Many of you will study the length and breadth of the man based on the size and shape of his strong friendships, or maybe just one friendship, the one he had with you.
I know I will measure him by the conversations we did not yet have, the notes for which I’d ferreted away for a sunnier day when Mark was feeling well enough to talk, and I will also measure him through the books he introduced to me and I, to him.
But this is where I leave off the checks and balances and the counterweights because what has occupied the center of my sadness at the loss of Mark is the Mark-shaped hole in my heart, and that absence cannot be measured or weighed or explained with ease.
A person’s life is not a playbook, you see, or a morality tale or a pithy epigram; a man like Mark is not solely the sum of his stories, his books and his papers, nor is he a proof to be deduced solely by his devotedness to his family, his spouse and his friends.
Mark was Mark, and he is Mark still. I would give every book in my library to hear the sweet scratchiness of his voice again; to listen to him tease Dawn and Dan and his parents in his funny, gracious way.
But no one’s offering me an exchange rate on my books for the width and breadth of this dear man’s life.
I open the chrome and glass doors of the diner and clatter inside, searching for faces I’ve only seen in pictures.
Instead, I’m left to my office in a crooked little suburb in a cranky old city, standing upright but leaning against my desk.
I am paying close attention to the rain that burbles against the panes of my dusty aluminum-framed windows, and the darkness outside seems unceasing at this time of night.
Still, the dog with three legs slumbers on the floor, running the length of the room in his dreams. Still, this house sleeps on and on.
All the while, one part of my mind continues to cross and re-cross a single moment in another November, when I walked into a local diner ten minutes late to meet Dawn and Mark and Dan and Mr. and Mrs. A— for the first time.
But no alchemy of mere words will bring you back from the places you had yet to go.
Here. Look.—The noonday sun holds up the sky. I open the chrome and glass doors of the diner and clatter inside, searching for faces I’ve only seen in pictures.
The cashier, seeing my confusion, steps from behind the counter to lead me around a wall of sturdy glass blocks. The first person I see is a bespectacled and smiling man rising from his seat to greet me, followed in no short measure by his brother and his father, while his spouse and his mother look up and offer me two equally lovely grins.
Oh, Mark, I am so very nearly embarrassed to tell you how much I’d be willing to give up just to have this one moment, with you, again. But no alchemy of mere words will bring you back from the places you had yet to go. And there is no way to measure and shape the entirety of you into a single, small story. Trust me, Mark, I’ve tried. You know that I’ve tried.
If a man’s life is a river, your life is—and was—a place where even the rivers have rivers of their own.
I believe your rivers have reached their headwaters now. Godspeed, Mark.
Abelard’s favorite thing* to do—his utter and absolute favorite—is to climb up in The Husband’s lap and tuck his head into a corner of The H.’s shoulder and drowse like a babe in arms while they both watch the evening news.
As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting to Bluebird Blvd. for nearly three whole months.
I’ve been having a problem. A writing problem.
Is it writer’s block?
No, it’s something worse than writer’s block if you can believe it.
Writer’s block is bad enough. And it’s real—don’t give me any of your power right through nonsense, okay? I’ve done that. You can do it, but it’s like dancing on a broken leg. Super painful.
If you write, you know what I’m talking about. You’re sitting in the chair with the paper and the pen and the clock going, and you wait.
For what?!? You ask.
Words. You’re waiting for words.
Well, there are words everywhere, you say. Just pick up a dictionary. Hell, turn on the television. People are speaking them things all the time.
Um. They’re not the right words. That’s the whole problem.
So there you sit. Or you used to—staring at the wall. Waiting for something to materialize. The more you sit and wait, the more you believe you’re going to be sitting and waiting forever. But of course you don’t.
The words come—terribly at first, then a little better, and if you’re lucky, pretty well, and then either you go for broke and it’s hours later and you look up and go whaaaa? —because you’ve totally lost track of time and it’s late and the dogs need their supper. . . .
Again, this is how it used to be.
Now every writer I know has a completely different writing problem.
There are too many words now, dammit. Too many freaking words.
Every day, I wake up to a phone that insists on throwing words at me. I sit up in bed and grab the glass of water I set on the nightstand every evening. I take my pills and pull a book onto my lap—I like to wake up slowly, you see. But there are all of these things that are asking for my attention.
There’s a television set in the other room blathering about the best way to sew a Hong Kong seam. (Yes, The Husband watches his sewing shows before school.)
And my phone beeyooops! because someone on Facebook “likes” the photograph I re-posted yesterday from Humans of New York. (Dude, I love HONY. Best thing on the internet.)
And then Twitbot 3 ker-bleeps! because the alert I set for our current Texas Guvi, Captain Hairdo is blowing up this morning because—oh, is it Christmas already?—he’s being indicted. (For something. Finally.)
Yeah, I know. You’re saying, “This is a problem? I should have such a problem.”
Oh, but it is. It is!
Do you realize that I haven’t even gotten out of bed and my ears are being crammed with words that aren’t my words? They’re not even the words in the lovely book that’s fallen open on my lap like a goofy disembodied grin. These words are semi-random things, mostly banalities, that I’ve personally selected to disrupt me throughout the day.
Yes, yes. You’re getting it now. I did this to myself. It’s a nightmare; it’s a terror. I gave my brain a raging case of writer’s block, but what’s going on isn’t actually anything like writer’s block at all.
Writer’s block is turning on the faucet and only getting a dribble of rusty words. Around here it’s a damn DELUGE. I’m being pelted with a stream of blah-blah-blah seam ripper, blah-blah-blah HONY should win a Nobel this yearii…blah-blah-blah GUESS WHAT CAPTAIN HAIRDO DID NOW!
It’s no wonder I started to have serious problems with writing. There are simply TOO MANY WORDS. And they’re also ALL THE WRONG WORDS.
Look at me. I’m so upset that I’m writing in italics for emphasis. And that’s really, really bad, y’all. It’s the cheapest writing trick in the book. The only thing worse than using italics to hit your paces is… JUST LOOK AT ME. —oh, there it is. The caps-lock gambit.
I’m a mess. But it’s not just me. This word problem is a worldwide emergency.
Some writers have gone as far as locking up their devices when they’re working on deadline. (Hint: If you’re a journalist, this idea may not work.) I know of two novelists (not personally) who disabled the internet capability on their computers.
One of them literally grabbed some glue and gummed up the works in his laptop. The other novelist pulled out the little bit that connects to the internet and put it in a vault and spun the lock.
And these are good writers. The Contemporary Lit kind with the sad smile and the little bald spot and the Ivy League education and the author’s photo on some street on the Eastern Seaboard and everything. If those guys can’t pull out of a writing nosedive caused by looking at crap on their phones, what the hell am I supposed to do?!? You know me—I am as ridiculous as I tell you I am. I may be even more ridiculous than I report to you—I don’t know.
Well, this is what I’ve come up with so far: WALLPAPER. Just hear me out. You know how the first thing you see when you turn on your computer in the morning after it warms up is your desktop wallpaper, right?
Why not write something to REMIND you to write and make it into DESKTOP WALLPAPER, so that EVERY TIME you look up from some bullhound conversation you’re having on Twitter instead of writing your novel, you’ll get the point.
It’s better than guilt or an alarm or an expensive POMODORO system or GET ‘R’ DONE or any of those marketing things that help you yell at yourself to get work finished.
Or so I thought at the beginning of this summer.
In June, I designed this desktop picture and put it on my Mac so that it was the first and last thing I ever see on my computer.
Cute, right? Okay, well that was a novelty for about a week. Then I pretty much forgot it was there and still was struggling with writing.
As you can see with this next one, I ratcheted up the noise. I didn’t want to miss this when I looked up from my browser with three tabs open that have nothing to do with me writing at the moment: The Mary Sue, Pinterest, Facewitter. Something like that.
And so that wore off in a few weeks as well. Around the beginning of July, I started to panic. That’s when I created this beaut right here:
But you know what? I ran the first part of my writing career based on fear. I’m pretty immune to fear at this point.
Plus, I am a born existentialist. You figured that out, right?
Also, I’ve been to graduate school. I was already a professional writer when I entered graduate school at 25. Graduate school is way more scary than the actual writing world. I kid you not.
Finish an MFA and you’ll be hard-pressed to be afraid of anything ever again. Deadlines. Coral snakes. Mortgages. I’m serious.
None of this mattered by early August I guess I made this? It’s all kind of a blank here on out:
And, um, this.
Here’s the last thing I haven’t really tried lately—plumping up my ego.
You know that writers have notoriously fragile egos, right? Well, mine is not so fragile. But as a writer, I am kind of like Peter Pan in that I like it when you look up to the sky and think of me from time to time.
Geez, I’ve missed you all.
Oh, just one more thing. I know the social media stuff is just witchy for writers. Actually, it’s so bad that it’s made me nostalgic for old-fashioned writer’s block.
Sweet cracker sandwich, has it come to this?
i That spelling is intentional. In Texas, you have the Guv and you have the Lite Guv. The Lite Guv is the guy with the power. The Guv. is usually a figurehead. Usually. (Anne Richards was no figurehead, darlin’!)
ii (Brandon Stanton is hitting all the right marks with his ongoing Goodwill tour. If you’re not following him right now, you should go and do that immediately. Then come right back, okay?
I have been caring for a foster dog for five weeks and I have not given him any name, even a temporary one on which we all can hang our future hopes for him. Instead, I have called him “Bub” and “Junior” and “the baby” and “darling” and “you.” When I croon to him, the foster dog has heard himself named “sweetie” and “good boy” and “good dog” in the dulcet sing-song I use with babies and young dogs. And when the foster dog requires correction, my stentorian tones linger on “mister” and “sir” and “buddy” — as in “Buddy, you had better leave that power strip alone or we’ll all get a shock today.” and “Sir! Compose yourself.”
In these five weeks, I have called the foster dog so many random things that he does not know when he is being called except that I routinely clap my hand twice across my breastbone and whistle to bring him in from the darkness at the edges of the yard. When he races on three legs from out of the shadows of the loquat trees, I drop to my heels to catch him in my arms and call him “good dog” and “sweet baby” and “love.” While he sighs and presses into my shoulder, I massage his cheeks with the palms of my hands in the circle of brightness from the security light by the back door. And there it is: I regret another day in which I have not named him.
I myself have two first names—a public name and a private name. Nearly four decades ago, my mother asked her mother to drive her to municipal libraries in three cities to look for names for the spark she carried between her small hips. It was my grandmother who told me this story first—with an equal amount of amusement and wonder and respect—because she, herself, would not have gone to any wild trouble over a name—names came to you, she believed, not you to them. You did not, as my grandmother put it “hunt them down” or “track a name to the near-ends of the earth.” But this is exactly what my mother did when she was six months pregnant and beginning to show a little, even when she wore her car coat.
Put another way, my mother didn’t require someone else to climb over the fence of the witch’s garden patch next door to settle her craving for green spring peas like the pregnant woman in the fairy tale. She herself launched over that garden wall with a leg up from my grandmother. Only my mother knew what she was craving, and only she could find it. And woe be to any witch who threatened my mother —she was the hero on a quest. Everybody knows you don’t mess with the hero of the story. You drive them to the library to hunt for names, or you get out of the way.
My mother, the hunter. My mother, the hero. My mother, the sorceress. My mother, who gave me two first names, one secret, one not.
To know my true name is to conjure me on the spot.
In fairy tales, one’s name is the source of great power. Think of the hapless promise the terrified miller’s daughter makes to an opportunistic imp when she must spin straw into gold, or die. The imp can fix these matters if the miller’s daughter will promise him her future first child. She agrees, tout suite. True to all fairy tales, there is a twist to the promise: Should she can somehow discover the imp’s true name before he claims the child, he must forfeit her firstborn. Straw becomes gold; she lives to marry the king. When the imp arrives a year later to take her newborn child, it is the wind that finally saves the queen by carrying the imp’s name across the mountains. At the last minute, when the imp is about to lay hands on the infant, the former miller’s daughter calls him by name—Rumpelstiltskin!
Shocked, he blips out of existence. End of story.
Or is it? What has history taught us about names and naming that’s any different than the terror experienced by Rumpelstiltskin when the miller’s daughter speaks his true name? It’s the same old story, rewritten so the broken promise of the queen in the third act will appear gilded and heroic. But still: A broken promise is a broken promise. But still: The queen named names. But still: There is no Rumplestiltskin.
We don’t speak our names to strangers: We give them our names. Our names are also our surest currency: We can put our name behind a venture; we can let someone work under our name to get ahead in business. That’s assuming we have a good name to start with—meaning an acquired set of respected traits that people imagine when one’s name is conjured in conversation. For bad or for good, someone can act in your name because that’s the name of the game, but if your name is mud you may have to clear your name. Even so, your name may remain tarnished beyond recognition.
Regardless, I answer to the name Courtenay. But I am also called ________, which means almost no one is on a first-name basis with me.
Besides, I will probably not catch your name for the first six times I hear it. It’s not that I’m rude—I’m just terrible at names.
Names are the architecture on which we build the self. Names are the conqueror’s last word on an occupied space. Names lift and fall and bury and rise at an equal rate at which we speak those names aloud. Some names are magic. Some names are mysteries. Some names are crystalline structures that blow down at the first breath. Some things are felt to be so terrible are named ‘unnameable.’ Some names can never tbe spoken aloud or one will be seen as using that name in vain—or worse.
A name is a tailor-made burden. A name is the bright electric torch that illumines our way through everyday darkness. A name is a stamp and a trademark and a wish. A name is what we use to recall ourselves to ourselves long after the ones who named us have left the room. Sometimes we are named after someone and must live up to that name. Sometimes our names are our own to make or to destroy.
When we marry and take someone else’s name, we can even disappear.
There is no greater sleight-of-hand than a name.
I am standing in darkness; the foster dog hops along the fence line, bending the branches of the loquat trees as he goes. His paralyzed foot drags across the dead leaves, which then crackle and pop. In a few weeks, the cicadas will wake from their seven-year sleep and rise from the ground to sing in chorus during the watches of the night. It’s time to go inside. I thump my breastbone and whistle out to the dog. I can hear him turning around beneath the trees, considering my call. I thump my breastbone again and whistle twice: I am the only one outside tonight.
He turns to run to me; my hands are open. He runs; I will catch him in my arms.