(Also a sort-of review of The Writing Life)
As I have come to know it, writing is not an enjoyable process. I was reminded of this recently while attending a jazz concert and being struck by how much fun the musicians seemed to be having as they played together. My attention was transfixed on the piano player as he watched the rest of his band mates, and I noticed how he would smile in appreciation for what they were doing as he waited for an opportunity to add a musical co-sign. I’m sure they had practice their set many times, but seeing the piano player’s reactions made me wonder whether there was something going on that he hadn’t expected. Perhaps his fellow musicians were surprising him with embellishments that he was delighted by.
Observing the jazz players’ expressions of enjoyment, I wondered if there was an equivalent experience for writers— moments of joyful collaboration when we are in a groove with our band mates, the words. My conclusion is there is not. Though we might fool ourselves into thinking we are collaborators–that there is some sort of give and take–the ultimate truth is the words are fully in control. They are the sole owners of the story. Knowing their power, words do not play fair. They disappear without warning and burst uninvited into thoughts. They disrupt plans and have no regard for established ideas. Words are like children who beg for an adult’s attention–once they have it, they can no longer remember what they wanted to say. The writer’s job is to poke and prod them into action. Yet, once set into motion, they fully expect to be left alone to direct the story. Herein lies the source of the writer’s frustration: with no control, writers are left to trust that the words know where they are going.
The only comfort writers have is that ours is a struggle many have endured before. This is one reason why we surround ourselves with books–they are reminders that our plight is not insurmountable. In fact, it was on a particular day when I was in need of some assurance that I sought refuge in a book store and discovered Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a slender exposition on this life’s absurdity—in that one willingly enters into a profession wherein there is no real control over the means of one’s trade. In The Writing Life, Dillard gives us the language to understand this paradox while refusing to allow us to wallow in the pitifulness of it all. “Yes, it is a ridiculous thing that you have dedicated yourself to,” I imagine Dillard saying, “but you’ve done it now, so get over it and write.”
Dillard strikes a mentor’s tone or that of a favorite college professor, providing both comforting advice and challenging nudges. Most importantly, Dillard disavows us of any romantic notions we may have about this life. In fact, The Writing Life could easily persuade someone to consider a different path altogether, if that someone were not wholly convinced that writing is her only marketable skill. Left with no alternative but to commit to this life as presented, Dillard offers us guidance in negotiating peace with the words.
The most important lesson illuminated by Dillard, and one writers must fully accept if they are to have any hope, is this: the story is not ours. We must surrender to the words. Dillard uses many metaphors to describe the process of surrender. The words create a path. “You go where the path leads.” The words are a “hammer” with which “you tap the walls lightly” listening for hollow parts to be filled in or disregarded altogether. In this case, as Dillard explains, surrendering often means throwing away passages that once seemed integral to the story’s structure. Though it hurts to give up a perfectly written line or paragraph, Dillard warns us that those constructions are the ones we must prepare to let go of if we are to see the truth of the story. This gets at the heart of surrender. “…it is often a bearing wall that has to go,” Dillard explains. “It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.”
This life we choose necessitates courage—not just an editor’s courage but also the courage to admit what we do takes time. In the world of web 2.0, writers face the incessant need to produce more. Tweet more. Blog more. The purveying thought is that the more one produces, the more relevant one becomes and remains. But if we believe Dillard, which by now it should be obvious that I do, we understand that crafting a story takes time. Remember, this thing is not ours, thus we cannot expect it to adhere to our timetable. Sure, we can produce something that is readable, maybe even entertaining. But here, Dillard challenges us. Is what we have created literature? Is it craft? As writers, we have to spend enough time with the words in order to detect what isn’t right. “…x-ray it for a hairline fracture,” Dillard instructs, “find it, and think about it for a week or a year…” The danger in writing too quickly is the risk of believing that what we are able to construct in a short amount of time is actually good. Dillard teaches:
“On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away. These truths comfort the anguished. They do not mean, by any means, that faster-written books are worse books. They just mean that most writers might well stop berating themselves for writing at a normal, slow pace.”
Writing takes time. We are not in control. These truths lend themselves to an overwhelming sense of relief when we actually complete a piece of work. That relief is quickly replaced with dread, however, when we consider doing it again. Is there anything left? I have sometimes lamented, “There are no more words!” Not so, says Dillard. There are more. She encourages us to use all the creativity we have every time we engage the words without fear of running out. “Something more will arise for later, something better,” she assures. “These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”
Certainly, writer’s block is a real factor and an intrusion in this life. But I can’t help but believe that becoming blocked is often caused by our unwillingness to let go. Whenever I have experienced writer’s block, it is hard to even bring myself to look at a blank piece of paper. I feel embarrassed that I am unable to produce anything. But when we are blocked, the page is exactly where we need to go. The page is where the words meet us. They can’t lead us to the story if we don’t show up. Dillard illustrates the page’s importance:
“Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity…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.”
To be sure, it is a scary proposition to constantly face blankness, ever aware of the possibility that the words won’t be there. Which is why writing is an act of faith. We show up believing, trusting, that the words will be there. We have to trust, because trust is the only way the words will reveal themselves. They wait for us to prove we are committed, that we won’t abandon them when they take a divergent path, that we will follow them dutifully.
Upon concluding The Writing Life, a non-writer might be compelled to ask, “Why on earth would anyone choose to live this way?” A writer might very well ask the same question. Dillard, though, doesn’t take up this issue. She doesn’t tell us why we should write or try to convince us of writing’s nobility. The Writing Life isn’t an answer for those who wonder if they should become a writer. Rather, it is a blanket of courage for those who have decided that this life is the only way.
I watch the jazz players as they affirm one another’s songs. Friends sitting on a back porch enjoying a southern summer breeze reminiscing over stories told many times before. They never tire of hearing the same stories because the inflections are new and the details are re-imagined. And anyway, the point of the story is its telling, the collaboration, the journey filled with laughs and new sounds recorded for future remembrances.
The writer’s life is different. It is solitary, sometimes nauseating. There are no affirmations on the road. We walk by faith. We surrender to this life because we have questions that need to be answered and no other way of answering them. The story, in its finality, is the most important thing because there we find our understanding. The journey makes no sense without the end.
Put another way: ours is not an art made from fun. But for fun, we turn to jazz.