On the wall above our mantel, we’ve hung a wedding sampler I cross-stitched for us. It was meant to be a wedding present from me to Philip, but I finished more than four years after we married. I finished, though, and now, every day I look at the goldenrod and red threads, and I remember that day now five years ago.
This work was quiet, private – except for an Instagram photo or two – something done for us in the evenings of early pregnancy with a fire in the wood stove. It was a labor – dozens and dozens of hours – but one done for us, no one else but the guests who grace our home with their precious souls.
So this week, as I listened to the new podcast series TED interviews and heard Elizabeth Gilbert speak about the value of work for the artist herself, I thought of this sampler and the dozens of other pieces I’ve sewn for people over the years. I’ve thought about the way each of them as soothed me, quieted my spirit, opened up space for me to think.
In the interview, Gilbert talks about how she was on a tight book deadline when her partner Rayya died. She talks about how writing that book is what brought her healing, about how showing up at the page is what got her through. (She says it beautifully, so definitely give the interview a listen.)
Then, she talks about how she is driven by curiosity, by questions that lead her ever deeper into mystery and story. She shares how she lives in a world where we don’t have to choose how we are for days on end, where grief and joy can abide together, where sometimes we are good and sometimes we are not.
Her words on ideas, on the way they exist as entities all their own are concepts I’m carrying with me as I let them shift my worldview that is both so scientific and so magical that ideas which sit between have a hard time finding space in me. Still, I’m holding this mystery – as I did when I first read it in Big Magic* – because I know there is truth there, truth that will alter my writing life powerfully.
Hope for the Writing Life
Sometimes, I get so focused on platform, on book sales, on how many little hearts sit underneath the things I’ve said that I forget the way that writing recreates me each time I sit down with words. Sometimes, I forget the way it has saved me – how this blog pulled me from despair when my husband left, how The Slaves Have Names moved me through grief over my mom’s death, about how the words I laid against the first days of Milo’s life settled me in.
Gilbert’s words opened me up again to the well-washed truth that writing is – always – first and foremost about what it does for me. In so many ways, what happens after I do the work is bonus, a special gift that is beautiful but not necessary. If I can only hold on to that truth . . .
Her words also tapped a truth that I knew but had never put words to – life and, thus, creativity is not a work of binaries. It’s not a work of waiting until we feel great – or horrible – to write. It’s not a work of writing something joyful and leaving out the tragedy that always sits behind joy. It’s not a work of crafting characters that are tropes or allegorical embodiments, not a work of trying to be something simpler than we are.
Rather, writing is a work of vast, deep, high truth-telling. Writing tells the truth in all its messiness, in blood and star-shine. Writing is brackish, liminal, between.
And to live in those betweens, to write into them, as Gilbert reminded me, our first work is to show up. As she says, we cannot control inspiration or talent. What we can control is that we show up and do the heavy lifting of effort.
In the end, after all, the work is for us, to change us, to teach us, to help us know. Anything else is bonus.
What a gift. What a freedom. What a blessed, blessed burden.
That sampler on our wall. The joy is mine. And maybe as a bonus, the joy is also now yours.
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