My mom recommended a book to me last week.
It sounded interesting so I jotted down the title because I’ve been in the midst of a dry spell since I turned the final page on All My Puny Sorrows and wiped the tears off my cheeks.
You know how it is: that abrupt end of relationship with a loved book. There’s the effort to find another one that won’t bore you senseless or disappoint.
It could be a fabulous book, it could be spectacular, the one that follows, but it’s not that book, you think, and close the cover, pitch it aside.
I went to San Francisco and hardly read at all. Nothing has been sparking.
And then my mom told me about Ann Patchett’s essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
She said that the first couple essays, about the writing life, reminded her of me, of my outlook on writing, my bad habits, the things I’m learning, and my longstanding efforts to find suitable work to support my creative writing habit, including freelance writing.
She should know: it’s to her, also an artist, who I often complain. The plot is floppy, the thing is crap. I’m stuck, I’m stuck! Yeah, yeah.
So I picked it up.
Last night I had my nose in it, nearly to midnight, and as I read I kept on saying, yes, yes, yes!
And so today (because apart from trying to maintain my body temperature in minus-30 degree weather, and counting down to the December afternoon when our dog will be able to run for the first time in seven months, my mind is drifting between new short stories and the thematic puzzle of my novel, and I’ve got nothing else to say) I thought I’d just excerpt from it.
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and imagination. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key.
Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming: a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea. If I thought too much about how far I’d come or the distance I still had to cover, I’d sink. As it turns out, I have had this same crisis with every novel I have written since. I am sure my idea is horrible, and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I’ve realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea. I made a pledge that I wouldn’t start the sexy new novel I imagined until I had finished the tired old warhorse I was dragging myself through at present.
Amazing to me that these feelings, like a genetic code, like the DNA that tells daisies to have white petals and a bright yellow centre, could be a commonality amongst writers (at least some of us). I feel it; I’m sure others do.
Amazing, also, to encounter such a gorgeous explanation, and to feel a kinship, again, with words, with the invisible writer who wrote them. Somehow it makes it less lonely, entering those frigid waters each morning, pushing into the breast-stroke, tugging at deep water for shore.