Why I Write: Jason Half-Pillow

I write because I can’t really do much else. I can do other things but not things that require concentration. I can’t really work. I can’t really read. I can’t really sit through an entire conversation.

I have many medical conditions and have had most of them for a very long time, and they have finally begun to take their toll. I think they did long ago, and I just wasn’t noticing.

I taught for more than 15 years with my type I diabetes and getting through each class period, let alone each day, was for me something of a miracle. And I know now that there were a lot of days when I didn’t, but everyone was courteous enough to play along with me that I did. It wasn’t at all uncommon to be struck with sudden and dramatically dropped blood sugars and to eat nearly a whole Party Sized bag of face smearing in many color, Skittles and keep talking, standing and shaking before my students with a flood of sweat pouring down my face and exploding suddenly from beneath my thin shirts and threatening even to put some temporary stain of salt on my ties. The reason for the low was because a period earlier I had a dangerous, hospitalization level high and calculated wrongly correcting it with a quick shot of insulin given between classes. I had to finally quit.

I try reading and can’t do it very well. I watch TV, mostly old shows on Netflix. I watch TV shows because the prospect of watching a whole movie fills me with dread; I know I won’t be able to sit or lay or stand and pace around through the whole thing and don’t want to think about what that means. Short little shows are much better. I watch also shows that I’ve seen millions of times before, which allows me to not pay attention but still keep track of what’s going on. I even watch one old, prime time Soap Opera, a guilty pleasure whose plot turns and twists are so contrived that not knowing who all the new people are or why some past friend is now a death throe enemy makes watching the show almost better. I mention all this because it always tweaks a little and pains me when I read on various web sites writing advice to read, read, read. I try, and am able at times to draw inspiration, but only from sentences, never a whole page, and never a complete story or book.

The only other thing I can do and concentrate on besides writing is riding my bike. I now realize that both the road biking and mountain biking I do, both on hilly and sometimes downright mountainous terrain, is very much like writing – specifically, like writing my way through the syntax of a complex sentence. The moments where I am smoothly sailing are few and far between, and, as I do when I write, I pause and shift my weight – sideways, forward and backward – and change pace, and think of my next move, looking ahead and stutter and step forward lurching to get some momentum, and sometimes speed off in quick dashes, then slow to lumbering little bursts, as I work my way up the terrain. There are times also where I realize I really miscalculated and some sudden, ominous physical sensation tells me to slow to a near clanging crawl and focus on getting my breathing down to the point where I can talk to myself as I go up the rest of a deceptively steep and long stretch of wide open hill.

Going down the hill, if it’s on the mountain bike and on a trail, shares nothing I can think of with the experience of writing. I can concentrate doing that too, but it really is a matter of much greater urgency than any other matter I ever deal with, save for those all to regular panicked moments when I have to maintain my composure and decide if the attack I’m having is low blood sugar, panic, asthma, or might actually be coming from my heart and assess whether the best thing to do is to simply proceed directly to the hospital.

On my mountain bike, descending an actual trail, my focus is zeroed in on not crashing, not flipping, not flying over and pulling my bike with me because my feet are clipped into the pedals, not skidding and sliding and cutting to the white bubbles of plasma through my skin, and not being totally laid up for weeks or probably months, and unable to think probably through the pain and the opiates, let alone write, really, let alone ride. I mountain bike in a fairly vast state park in Santa Cruz, and I often times see deer and groups of Wild Turkeys and Bobcats even crossing the trail ahead of me. There are signs warning also of Mountain Lions and I half fantasize about eluding one fully intent on eating me alive. That’s probably something I should be careful to wish for given my many conditions, but such strange fantasies add exhilaration to taking more quickly the tight, skidding curves during the flying descent of a sunny 70 degree day, mid winter, California ride.

But then again, there is an element of desperation similar to challenging mountain bike trail descents also when I’m writing. When I think of getting what I’m doing published, then parlaying that into something, that will lead to something, that will then lead me to one day write a novel and have it not just published, but widely read and in some places even lauded, not just for its own sake, but for the genius I’m convinced is contained within what I don’t know to be the jumbled sentences as I get into a zone and rhythm while I write. This thinking is similar to the delusional exhilaration I feel descending all mountains, either trails or road; there exist all the exact same twists and turns and changes of angle and elevation that I worked so hard and haltingly getting through on my way up – descending is almost like whizzing through terrain you conquered in some open air, army jeep.

I sometimes confuse the ease of the descent with great cycling ability, and sometimes even wonder what it would be like going that fast uphill, like the pro’s.

Though, there are moments perhaps parallel to all the exhilaration I muster on my bike with these fantasies, when I read something I wrote, from a long time ago, that I had long since written off as amateur and embarrassing; but I go back to it and read it with fresh, almost alien eyes. And there are times I read something I once wrote, hardly skipping a beat and it flows, but more importantly, it makes me laugh out loud. That is my writing equivalent of speeding down hill on my bike.

I think getting back all the rejection slips is like calling and being told by the mechanic that they’re not yet done, that my bike has to spend another night in the shop.

I write, ultimately, to pass time, to get through my early mornings. After two hours of writing, I then eat, and maybe write a little more as my sugar rises, until it is elevated so much that I absolutely have to go for a ride. I then go and come back hours later, and eat again and monitor the effects the new food has on my blood glucose levels. I forgot to mention that I also had my colon removed in my late twenties, so when the food ends up digested and converted to glucose is highly unpredictable, and thus demands of me near constant monitoring to watch for sudden level dropping or a dangerously sudden rise.

I mentally meander through the rest of the day, reading headlines, then start watching things on Netflix, and grow tired, from the mental strain, I think, maybe from the writing, the physical strain from the cycling, and the mental, physical and psychological toll of the insulin and glucose changes, and I pick up my laptop from the table and take it into the bedroom, where all my half and less than half read books lie open face down on both dressers, and I settle in there, watching until my lids start to fall and find myself hours later, suddenly woken and stare at the charcoal Netflix show over computer screen and hear through my window the scattered sounds of whatever is moving outside.

Writing for me, really, is essentially a way passing, – and to be fair, it could also be said, by those who really don’t like what I write, simply wasting – time. I am no longer able to work steadily. I do not say this from self-pity or seeking anything from the reader; I am almost always alone and if I didn’t write, the stress of the boredom might simply drive me insane.

In truth, I might very well write just to get ready to go out and bike. If I had to do one or the other, if push came to shove, and I think I’d choose the bike.

About Jason Half-Pillow

Jason Half-Pillow's writing has appeared in the Iowa Review, The Bicycle Review, Hobo Pancakes, The Driftwood Press, The Satirist, Crab Fat Magazine, Marco Polo Arts Mag, Gadfly Online, Remarkable Doorways Literary Journal, and will soon be in On The Rusk, Dirty ChaiThe Intentional, and in Bully, a short story anthology from KY Story.  He was born in Redwood City, California. He now splits his time between Santa Cruz, California and Vicenza, Italy.