Saturday, March 02, 2013
The illusion of control
I've been using Microsoft Word practically forever. And until this week, I hadn't given much thought as to why.
In its simplest terms, Word represents my writer's playground, the one place on the planet where I have absolute control over whatever happens next. Whenever I load it up, it presents me with an empty screen, a blank slate, a place where I'm free to do whatever I want within its borders. I can create prose from nothing, dropping letters on the white background, honing and shaping them into words, sentences and paragraphs that tell the stories I want to tell. Just so.
I can tweak the bits for as long as I wish - well, until deadline, that is - until they're practically dancing, jumping out at me from their seemingly plain-ish roots. By the time I'm done with the last of my final reads, it's got a flow and a spirit to it that never ceases to feel like magic. All I did was close my eyes and allow the words to flow through my fingers. And this happened. From nothing. Incredible how it all works.
As I mull over the writing process - my writing process, because I imagine others may follow a different, unique-to-them path - one thing stands clear: it's all about me. I don't say that to sound arrogant or elitist. Rather, the only inputs and outputs are driven by me. There is no external influence, no one standing over my shoulder telling me what to do, what to say, how to say it. It's entirely up to me whether I want to rebuild that particularly challenging chunk of phrasing or simply leave it in its raw form as my own form of literary irony. I have absolute control over this little world of mine, the initially-white space on a backlit screen that eventually becomes decidedly less white, decidedly more reflective of what I've been thinking and feeling, and what my head's churned over the preceding few hours or days.
Flip to the real world and it's an entirely different story. I have no control. Not even a semblance of it. Over the past number of months, the phone continued to ring, bringing us ever worsening news about my mother-in-law's health. Back in the hospital. More tests. Infections that never went away. Complications that relentlessly piled on like waves on an incoming tide.
And through it all the phone would continue to ring. We'd answer it. And listen. And talk. My wife, quite possibly the most devoted daughter anyone could ever meet, offered her parents whatever she could. And when words weren't enough, she'd drop everything and fly or train in to help. Or we'd make the drive through endless nights on an all too familiar highway. We'd nurse our own fears while trying to calm everyone else's. We'd try to explain it all to the kids, knowing full well that they had in all likelihood shaped their own responses and perspectives long before we sat them down at the kitchen table. We'd resign ourselves to the fact that whatever we did it was going to play out on the universe's own agenda, anyway.
This morning, I once again had control over this particular backlit square of Microsoft Word. My little writer's playground started empty in a pre-dawn room my my in-laws' house, far from home. And by the time my head and fingers were finished their thing, the grey sky was as fully lit as a mirthful Mother Nature would allow, and this entry was the result.
But outside of this both never- and ever-changing writer's space, I had no control. I couldn't stop the phone calls from coming. Couldn't fix this. Couldn't say or do anything - beyond a limitless number of hugs and spoken words that ultimately changed nothing - to stop this darkness from descending over my family. Couldn't keep myself from sitting alone in a shadowy room writing about a past now lost to time. Couldn't keep my kids from losing their bubby, my wife from losing her mom, my father-in-law from losing his best friend.
There's a massive disconnect between a world I control and a world that controls me. And the fact that letters on a screen have no ability to change whatever goes on outside reinforces just how powerless I ultimately am.
Yet I'll continue to go back to this world of words of mine. Because in a perverse sense it makes me feel at least somewhat better for those few moments when I'm in it. For those few moments when the phone isn't ringing, and I'm not being challenged to fix the unfixable. Because words just aren't that powerful despite my wish otherwise.
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