I’ve been working on various chunks of writing for blog posts for the past many weeks. I wound up feeling dissatisfied and irritated with each one of them. I even wrote a blog post about feeling irritated with them. Then I read an excellent essay by Annie Dillard called “The Writing Life,” and things snapped back into perspective.
One of the things Dillard describes exquisitely is the challenge of writing. I know that to be true, but as happens so often, there is a difference between the idea of it and the actual experience. Knowing in your mind that writing is hard is quite different from sitting there wresting with an actual piece of writing. Having just written about feeling irritated with writing, something in me was soothed by Dillard’s words. It didn’t make writing any easier, but it did help me realize more deeply (again) that, oh yes, this is just how writing is. For all writers. It doesn’t mean I should stop. It doesn’t mean I am creating something horrible. It is just part of the process. The key is to keep going.
Dillard alludes to the process being similar for painters as well, but I think what she says is true of any act of creation, so I’m going to quote some passages of Dillard’s essay here. Whether you’re creating art or a career or a family or yourself, the process is not an easy one, but it is rewarding, even though the result is often not what you had envisioned.
In one passage, Dillard describes the daily routine of working on a particular book. She talks about having to crank herself up.
I pointed myself. I walked to the water. I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched bird. That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month….Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday. What I wrote yesterday needed to be slowed down. I inserted words in one sentence and hazarded a new sentence. At once I noticed I was writing—which, as the novelist Frederick Buechner noted, called for a break, if not a full-scale celebration.
Dillard then talks about drinking more coffee and overcranking herself. Then she draws all over her writing.
Where next? I knew where next. It was within my possibilities. If only I could concentrate. I must quit. I was too young to be living at a desk. Many fine people were out there living, people whose consciences permitted them to sleep at night despite their not having written a decent sentence that day, or ever.
Dillard later says this about the vision you see in your mind’s eye versus the actual words that you end up putting on the page:
The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is not the vision filled in, as if it had been a coloring book. It is not the vision reproduced in time; that were impossible. It is rather a simulacrum and a replacement. It is a golem. You try—you try every time—to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.
And yet she says it is the page that teaches you to write:
…the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nonetheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed threat of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write. There is another way of saying this. Aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block.
That is, to me, the essence of the process of creation: aim for the chopping block. I can feel when I get focused on the wood, whether it’s in my writing or my psychotherapy work or my personal life. When I am focused on the wood, I feel narrow, restricted, closed in. I tend to get tangled up in the particulars, and then I start to fret or collapse. When I focus on the chopping block, the minutiae recede and I can just keep going, knowing that what underlies is what matters. The essence of what I’m doing is what matters. The cumulative effect and the effort to chop wood, again and again, is what matters. And then the work, whatever it is, unfolds, often in ways I never could have planned in all my fretting.
As Dillard says,” You know that if you proceed you will change and learn things, that the form will grow under your hands and develop new and richer lights. But that change will not alter the vision or its deep structures; it will only enrich it. You know that, and you are right.”
© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2014.