There’s a photograph of a ceiling hanging on our wall. It was taken at an angle, from below and to the side, in a construction zone, with stairs leading up into an attic with no roof, and a free-floating lightbulb hanging from a cord attached to a pendulous plank of wood. Except for the light in the attic opening, the photo is very dark, different shades of black. It is often easier to see reflections in the photo frame than to see the contours of the photo itself. Seth and I can’t decide which of us took this photo. Early in the pandemic, we took photo walks around the neighborhood, often with some prompt like “contrast” or “curves.” We both remember this construction zone and we both remember taking this photo, but it wasn’t until after we blew it up and printed it that we realized our conflict. We both like the photo, though, even though it’s difficult to explain why.
Our cat Mondo agrees, it seems, because lately he’s been spending all his time plopped in front of this photo. He’s just figured out how to launch himself from the couch to the top of the bookshelf, giving him a front row seat of our mysterious construction closeup. Often he stares at our apartment from this new vantage point with satisfied blinks. But several times a day he decides that something is wrong, something is very, very wrong with our apartment, and it all has to do with this photo. He turns to the photo and digs. It looks like he’s trying to scratch the frame open, but his claws are retracted. It’s just pure paw nub, digging into the frame, rubbing and rubbing it, like he’s trying to release a genie or find a hidden opening or rub away the frame in the process. He digs into the dangling lightbulb, the hidden staircase, the many shades of black. He digs into his reflection, pushing this intruder cat aside so he can find where the portal goes. Because he knows that’s what it is: a portal. An opening, beckoning for him to come inside. If only this damn glass and photo paper didn’t keep getting in the way.
A couple weeks ago I applied for and was rejected from a writing workshop. I’ve had bad luck with writing workshops, but I still keep applying for them every so often, each time telling myself it’s not a big deal, that life won’t be different if I don’t get in, but each time getting my hopes up anyway and letting them crash into a cycle of self-doubt. I quit my full-time job more than two years ago now because I want to “be” a “writer.” I wanted to try it without the constraints of an expensive and time-intensive graduate program. But I often wondered what I’d be missing. I wanted a too-warm classroom with too-bright lights and no windows. I wanted a fresh new notebook with a spine waiting to be cracked. I wanted classmates to commiserate with over tyrannical homework assignments. I wanted an artistically suffering teacher to provide the secrets of life. I wanted to be in.
In this profession there is a lot of wanting. A lot of waiting. A lot of writing, yes, but that’s one side of it, the other side is the part where you have to live in this world, which requires food and water and electricity, meaning money, so theoretically it’s useful to write with some monetary goal in mind. But more than that, every writer wants to be read, and to be read, things need to happen, like publication. Sometimes I feel like I’m this close to being a published author, and sometimes this feels very far away. Yes, I’ve published stories here and there, but I’m talking about publishing a full-fledged book of fiction that’s all my own, something you can find in a bookstore or library. I have this dream that once I get a book published, life will open up, and someone will pluck me from my lowly unpublished status and plop me in the middle of the literary world, where I’ll brush elbows with other authors, writers and teachers and readers and critics, and I’ll be in. I’ll make it.
So when I got an email alerting me that someone dropped out of this new workshop, and I was next in line, and would I like to join?, I said yes, yes, yes. But I was saying yes to more than just a workshop: in my mind I was saying yes to the first step on these mysterious stairs into the unfinished attic, where successful authors would be waiting for me, saying “just a little further, you’re almost here.” I rode high on this feeling for a few days, even as I half-knew that this wasn’t how it worked, that realistically, participating in this workshop wouldn’t change my life in any meaningful way—but I chose to ignore the rational part of my brain and just enjoy the feeling. I was accepted. I ran faster. Worked harder. Got a new notebook. And on the first day, I showed up an hour early so I could walk through the halls of a university and feel like I belonged.
The workshop itself, of course, couldn’t live up to my sky-high expectations, even as it fulfilled them in a physical sense. There was the windowless room, too warm and too bright, fluorescently exposing every pore. The tortured teacher grousing about the room’s previous occupant leaving a jacket behind. But there was also something I forgot about first days of school: awkwardness. Discomfort. A terrible decision about where to sit. The teacher made lightly forced jokes to let us all know we could relax, but we couldn’t. I couldn’t. He asked us to make a collective decision about the structure of this workshop, and we all floundered, expressing half-opinions and maybes, hoping our collective soul would formulate itself, but instead, we decided to “figure it out over email.” I found myself feeling trapped in my plastic rotating desk, staring at the faces of my fellow humans and wondering, Which one of you is going to change my life? And when?
Generally I’m happy about the workshop and looking forward to the next class, and the one after that. But it makes sense that the first one disappointed me a little. I appreciate the reminder that life is still life. There is no secret doorknob for me to twist, no magic rubbing that will take me to the other side. If I publish a book (knock on wood), there will be a version of life that is “life, after having published a book,” and it will look very similar to this one. At the end of the day, Mondo is only pawing at his own—slightly distorted—reflection.
I wonder what Mondo dreams of when he digs through our framed photograph. What will happen when he reaches the other side? Maybe he dreams of a world where every color is a shade of less-orange to more-orange, where shadows are prisms of light, where reflections are inversions. Or a world where everything is made of string: each human hand is a hundred feet long, wrapped up in a ball until someone yanks the right thread loose. Maybe in Mondo’s world, the wooden floors decompose to fresh dirt, and every speck of flour that falls to the ground takes root and bursts into a giant tree of bread. The clock bites back. Headphones release their claws. There is a doorway between everything and everything, with just enough room beneath to stick out your paw and grab it.
Maybe there’s nothing on the other side. But it’s nice to enjoy the dream.