Hearses and Other Distractions

HearseAs a child, I was terrified of two things: death and fire. I also grew up in a family that sang “The Hearse Song” at meals. Consequently, while most kids were on the lookout for punch buggies, I was on the lookout for hearses, and I never laughed if one went by. Every night, I cleared a path from my bed to my door, making sure that if the smoke alarm went off, I wouldn’t trip over books, clothes, or shoes in my attempts to evacuate the premises. During the day, I frequently practiced sliding headfirst down our twelve carpeted steps, staying as low as possible in order to avoid potential smoke inhalation.

By some miracle, I lived long enough to enter second grade, and one day my teacher, Mrs. Ash, gave us the following writing prompt: If you could be any person in the world, who would you be? I thought about all of the famous people I admired. Nadia Comaneci, Abraham Lincoln, and Helen Keller were my favorites. I knew immediately that no matter how much I wanted to, I could never trade lives with Nadia. Spending a childhood in leg casts and squeaky metal leg braces tends to shatter one’s dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast. And President Lincoln and Helen Keller, though both admirable, had one negative thing in common: they were both dead. That, of course, was an insurmountable problem. At the time, I didn’t know what pinochle was, and I still don’t, but I certainly didn’t want worms playing it on my snout.

Unfortunately, that meant that there was only one way to answer my teacher’s question. I couldn’t trade places with anyone else. I had to be myself. When I submitted the assignment, I wrote: If I could be any person in the world, I would be myself. I would be the same as I am now, but I would get my work done faster.

More than thirty years later, I am still a master procrastinator, and I frequently wish that I could trade lives with someone else, but ultimately we are stuck with ourselves whether we want to be or not. Fortunately, procrastination and a lingering fear of death have been very useful as I progress through the first draft of my novel.

My novel is about various things, but underneath it all, it’s about isolation, loneliness, being on the outside looking in, and yes, the fear of death. It is Teddy and Elizabeth’s story, but of course it’s really mine.

I started writing it three years ago at a writing workshop in Ohio. I wrote one paragraph, everyone clapped, and then I promptly put that paragraph away for three years. The story I wanted to tell was too painful, too close to the bone, and too impossible for me to write. But no matter what, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

This past September, I finally decided that I needed to give that paragraph another chance. I sat down and wrote ten pages, and I’m now closing in on two hundred. As suspected, it’s a hard novel to write. It requires frequent breaks, punctuated by waves of self-doubt and paralysis. The good news is that some of my favorite procrastination techniques: swimming, volunteering, playing the cello, cooking, and reading, often inspire me to sit down and keep writing. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I read over my draft, and all I can do is cry and wonder why I am choosing to spend so much time with this wacky cast of characters. But Teddy and Elizabeth and all of the others keep talking, so I have to keep writing. I don’t know whether anyone will ever read their story, but I’m writing it anyway.

On the days when it’s really hard to write my novel, I don’t. I’ve had a lot of those lately. So, instead of working on my novel, I’ve been writing this blog post. Tomorrow I might write a post card, put a stamp on it, and send it. Because there is magic in the handwritten word. Because each of us only has a finite amount of time on this earth to make connections with others, and because sooner rather than later, we have to make choices about how we spend our time and with whom we will spend it. I’m choosing to make writing my novel a priority. But first I have to practice the cello.


  1. Carol D. Gray

    “Because there is magic in the handwritten word.” I couldn’t agree more, Alexa. Please keep writing that novel. I really want to know what happens to Teddy and Elizabeth.

  2. Beth Gardner

    I loved your piece. I too am struggling to write a novel. It started just after my shoulder surgery three years ago. To be honest, I had been an on-again, off-again writer since I was 17. But nothing had ever gripped me before. Laying in my hospital bed, at home, stoned on pain meds, something made me ask for my computer, and I started writing, for fun, so I thought.

    Prior to my surgery, I had been doing years of historical research about Teddy Roosevelt as a child in Madison, NJ, during the Civil War. He and his family rented a summer home in what is now Convent Station. I was deep into Teddy and his family and “Tower House” where they stayed.

    As I started writing in my hospital bed, out popped this utterly engaging, funny story filled with talking animals, all native to the area, who inhabited Dr. Kitchell’s laboratory in the tower and who were carrying on his work after his untimely death. I spent two years working on the novel with the help of the Writing Circle in Summit and elsewhere, only to walk away from it because, 1) it was just too damn hard; and 2) it scared the crap out of me, and 3) because no one understood why it scared the crap out of me. I literally felt like I was channeling at times, and I did not like the feeling at all.

    FYI: your mother and I were best friends when we were in junior high school at KPS. And Annie Lamott was a dear friend of mine at Goucher where she was before she dropped out to go to NYC and make it as a writer.

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