Here’s the doggy dog truth. It’s Thursday night and for practically a whole week, when I haven’t been teaching – which I do every morning – or going to the gym for a run, I’ve been sitting in this chair in my living room trying to write a piece on family, which someone has asked me to write. I’ve come at it from every angle, trying to find a way in, a great first line or an anecdote. I thought I had it at one point, but two smart writer friends sent me back to the drawing board. It’s due in a couple of days and I can’t say that I’ve gotten any closer to moving into the heart of the piece. I even just made a second cup of coffee, and it’s 7pm – a total no no, and an act of complete desperation.
If only I were more talented, more intelligent or more-hard working, maybe this piece would just roll out of me. Know what I mean? Do you ever say, “If only I were as intelligent as Elizabeth Gilbert, as funny as Anne Lamott, as prolific as Joyce Carol Oats, as messed up as…as sassy as…”and the list goes on. Those are just some of the writers I envy when I’m fantasizing about how much easier writing would be if I had the talent they had.
And then finally, I do one good thing, which is to close my laptop, pick up a book and move to another chair, which is when I stumble onto this life-saving passage by Ann Patchett, in her book of essays entitled, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
She’s writing about writing and making art, and she says,
“The ability to forgive oneself. This is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”
Amen sister. Jeez. I’m floored. Ann, a best selling author of 6 books including, The Patron Saint of Liars, and Bel Canto, says that every time she sets out to try to take something from her head to the page she grieves for her own lack of talent and intelligence. She believes that if she were smarter, more gifted she could do the work justice. She says writing “is having to face down our own inadequacies over and over,” and that she has to forgive herself, saying, “I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can write the book I’m capable of writing.”
And this has me take a deep breath and consider mustering a little courage to just get the story down, even if it’s not perfect or it’s not the best story on family I will ever write. Honestly, it’s this desire for my work to be great that so often gets in the way of it being simply good.
In class the other day I told my writers that they didn’t have to be the best writer in the class. I even encouraged them to be the worst writer – which was a nice fat piece of freedom. Everyone sighed, “oh good.” Of course I was talking to myself – I always am.
And so, now it’s 7:30 pm, a third cup of coffee is out of the question and I don’t do cocaine anymore. A big envelope that my accountant has sent me is on the table behind me, and while I haven’t had the courage to open it to see how much money I’ll owe in taxes this year, I do have the courage to strap it on and clunk ahead with my piece on family, word by word until I get it right. It’s a gruesome business, but it’s the business I’m in. No matter how many books I’ve written, or how many blog posts or magazine articles, or classes I’ve taught on this very thing, I still have to sit here and face the blank page. It doesn’t get any easier as far as I can tell. The only thing I know for sure is that I will turn something in on Sunday, and if I’m lucky it’ll be good. Good enough.
Writing is safer in numbers. Join me for my awesome little online class, Telling True Stories, where I promise to share all of my clunky bits of wisdom and give you space to write lots of stories, which I’ll read and comment on – always with love and compassion for this work that we do.