So I have these boots.
I bought them a few months ago for $1.50. Yes, that’s a dollar-fifty, not one hundred fifty dollars; 50% off, on sale from $2.99, at the Salvation Army Store. I (naively) thought that they were leather, but they are not leather, they are whatever boots are made of when they are not made of leather. Square-toe, mid-calf, 4-inch all-rubber chunky heels. Red. The kind of dark red that reminds me of a certain Chevy station wagon that was popular in the late ‘80s (and that my sister and I, rebellious and sullen at 15 and 13, took out for a ride once, when our parents were away).
Four-inch heels. That’s pretty tall. Taller than any other shoe I own. I didn’t think much about why I was buying these boots, or whether I would actually wear them. I just thought Hm. Big red boots. Good condition. My size. A dollar fifty. Cha-ching. As it turns out, for the month of August, these have been my writing boots. No, not riding boots, writing boots. What: don’t you have a pair of writing boots?
Sorry to have been out of touch, I find myself repeating in emails and text messages lately. I’ve been on Planet Novel. I’ve never quite found comfortable words for describing what submerging yourself in long-form fiction-writing is like; my attempts always feel, and likely sound, pretentious. “Planet Novel” may not be any better, but the metaphor, at least, is not bad: there is indeed something otherworldly, far from one’s earthly life, that one experiences when deep into a fiction project over a continuous stretch of time. Mornings, I put on my space suit and launch into orbit; in the evenings, I need to “come back to earth,” reacclimate to the differences in altitude and atmosphere. I shed my space suit gingerly; regular life feels muffled, unfamiliar, potentially toxic. By sheer virtue of hours clocked, Planet Novel becomes more real, vivid, and immediate; planet earth feels weirdly monochromatic, floaty.
This summer I landed on Planet Novel in mid July. It took a couple of weeks to get my space legs. A carrel at one of the university libraries has served me well in the past, so there I went again, early mornings when it opened. A double espresso, with just a little hot water added (boiled at home, carried in a travel mug), became the best takeoff beverage. I started bringing a tea bag for the rest of the hot water, along with enough snacks, packed in Ziplocs and plastic Chinese food containers, to last me through late afternoon. My library carrel started to resemble my own little bodega. (Ah, well: some people need cigarettes. I need snacks.)
The work was coming along. I had set goals. I was more or less meeting those goals. Things were amping up, the characters deepening, the plot lines and ideas converging. The uninterrupted work time was paying off, in the sense that this thing that I have been hesitant to call a “book” or a “novel” during the year that I’ve been working on it was starting to feel like a Something. A title came to me. I tried it on for a few days, a week, said it out loud (only to myself). It stuck. I could feel myself turning a corner — braking before going into the turn, then accelerating — the Something accreting substance and life.
But I needed to up my game. Fatigue was setting in. Long days, almost three weeks straight. My head felt heavy and crowded. There was still so much mushiness that needed sharpening, loose ends that needed tightening or chopping or restructuring. The new goal was to push past this baggy, raggedy stage.
So I put on my boots.
I could include a snapshot here, but what would be the fun of that? (Please conjure, if you haven’t already, your own vision of big red boots to accompany you through this reading.) I‘ve been wearing them with shorts and t-shirts, ankle socks that don’t show. Four inches: that turns a 5-foot-2 girl into a 5-foot-6 girl. The library is four blocks away, mostly uphill. These boots are not easy to walk in, and that has turned out to be a good thing. I have to walk slowly, mindful of each step — as opposed to booking it, urban-commute-style. I have had to re-learn how to walk. My daily journey to the library has been a thoughtful, deliberative one: I’ve become aware of not just my feet and legs, but the swing of my arms, my posture. In line at the coffee shop, I feel tall, and grounded. And by the time I get to my carrel, my brain and body have already started working together; I am ready.
There are more practical advantages as well: the library is freezing cold. Along with my mobile bodega and travel mug, I pack a sweater and a shawl every day. The boots have kept my feet and lower legs warm. They’ve also greatly improved the ergonomics: there is no desk-and-chair combination out there that supports the anatomy of a 5-foot-2 long-torsoed girl, not without props. These boots work much better than phonebooks, or yoga blocks.
At midday, I take a break, go outside, get some air and sun. I stroll around the block — still slowly, still bootfully aware. The idea is to both rest and recharge. The streets are crowded around this time, everyone on lunch break; and last week I started to notice that not only do I feel different in the boots, but that I am being perceived differently. At first I thought maybe I was being paranoid and narcissistic, imagining that my big red boots were all that conspicuous; but over the days, I’ve seen that, in little ways, my boots are making an impression. I’ve thought about how I myself perceive others while walking down the street: I notice things, small things, and they register, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. Think of Bill Cunningham, registering fashion patterns and trends, his eye both noticing and curating. We’re not all Bill Cunningham, but we are all, I think, visually impressionable. My boots have been acting upon the world in a way that, say, my gray sneakers, or my brown sandals, don’t. People are looking at them, that’s for sure.
The other day, a man walking by — suited, middle-aged, bespectacled — affirmed for me that I wasn’t imagining all this. “Nice boots!” he said.
For those of you who are already relatively bold in your fashion sense, none of this is revelatory, I’m sure. For me, it is. I have felt newly endowed, existentially powerful — like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, at a different frequency. Who knows what the ripple effects might be, miles and years away?
When you are on Planet Novel, a little existential potency doesn’t hurt.
So I’ve worn the boots, and I’ve worked intensively, fruitfully. I needed to bring it up a notch; me and the boots met the challenge. And it’s not just that I’ve felt not-myself, like a boot-wearing interplanetary super-heroine; it’s that I’ve also felt like my hyper-self. Whatever it is that might keep me from wearing big red boots normally — from wearing, or doing, or saying, anything that draws attention, positive or negative — I let it go. I had work to do. I needed all the help I could get. The girl in the boots is Me; Me is working at something that feels very difficult, and Me needed to engage this particular habit to achieve what was most important to Me — to turn a Something into a Book. What I’m saying is that we access our real writing stuff when we can push through our own bullshit fears and hesitancy and self-consciousness. We need true courage, and maybe a little manufactured swagger can help get us there. I’m wearing these fucking boots, and I’m writing this fucking book.
This is the last week of the red boots (and the last week, for now, on Planet Novel). I am walking better in them. Still slow, still deliberate and aware, but also more naturally. The cheapness of the boots has started to show, however: the synthetic red has cracked and peeled, the stitching and seams have loosened. Surely I’ll wear them again, but probably not every day for a month.
It’s okay, though; I’m a romantic (I’d have to be to believe in the power of red boots, wouldn’t I?), which is to say I recognize that nothing lasts forever. These boots have served me well. Even without them, I’ll be walking up the hill a little differently from now on. My title is still sticking, and I’ve started calling the titled thing a novel. What happens next is yet still uncertain, but what I do know, what I knew from the beginning when I started wearing my dollar-fifty boots, is that it’s not the boots, nor my wearing them, that needs to last, but the work that we accomplished.
Image via Monceau/Flickr