My Writing Life


I read Annie Dillard's The Writing Life many years ago and was so impressed with how she nailed it, "A writer is someone who writes." So simple, so elemental. Tap the keyboard, or put pen to paper, and—voila!—you are a writer. It's truly the definitive thing. But did she mention what it takes to get to your desk? Or mention that, after you have written, and you’ve read, and you’ve written again, you have to read and write some more. It’s such a. . . process.

First, you need time and space for writing, however you make it or find it. This can be so sidelong that the writing hardly happens, or happens at such a discouraging pace as to be Sisyphean, as when you feel the need to write so desperately that you tell yourself you will write on the commuter train, or between 4 and 8 in the morning before you start your workday (really, it's how I did my dissertation and why   it   took    so    long). Conversely, the time and space requirements can come to be so precise as to be infinite, like the space between two points. Perhaps it's the desk you must have in the light you must have in the room you must have with the resources you must have at your finger tips, the inspirational art you must have over your desk, the magical talismans and the comforting trinkets, graspable in case your words are not. The getting it all just right, can take the “just write!” right out of you! So, when you have finally worked it out to have time and space in which to begin to write, you may feel tired and need to rest. I hope I sound authoritative. Cause I am.

Sometimes I do get to the desk and I actually write. I love it when that happens. I get so absorbed, and that creative absorption feels genius-like, even though, of course, I'm not saying I'm a genius. But I might have said it just then, in the heat of the moment, when everything was moving along on inspired rhythm. Like my own cheerleader, I might be found squealing, “Yes, baby, yes!” Honestly, I’m not one to dismiss ecstatic moments. In fact, I count them most sacred, but I do understand that they’re for a limited audience.

Next in the process, I read what I have written. Sometimes, I think it’s so good that I gleefully send it off for a friendly review. Fortunately, I have some people who tell me the truth. Often, they say that there are a couple of good ideas or images in the day's work. Often, too, there’s amazing self-indulgence to be thrown away, like the proverbial haystack around the needle. The long plunge from genius to fraud happens fast and repeatedly. Then I have to add “wastrel” and “faker” to the recriminations that have stepped into my psyche's spotlight, from whence the genius has so recently departed. It's a hard ride to stay on, this writing life. And I think I am learning that it can be a mistake to stay in the saddle just because writers write, and because it’s the disciplined thing to do. Sometimes you have got to step away and choose your metaphor.

I’m learning that, if I feel like a fraud, it’s probably really just a matter of being one.

Then I remember something else Annie Dillard said, on page 9 of my hardback edition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, something I memorized about thirty years ago: “For beauty and grace will be performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” To be there for the beauty that catches the corner of my eye, I have to also be there for the dull familiar thunk in my gut that informs me of the opacity occluding my vision; and then I have to be there for the sting that’s hid by it, like the needle in the haystack, and I have to grope around in that hay until the needle finds me and I bleed a little. I’d like to bust out of this cycle, but I can’t just get myself out of the way because myself is the medium, and its not a static medium. In the flow from that small and repeated wounding, the ecstatic channel of myself opens to the beauty and grace of the world, and then it contracts upon the wounded self again, making a kind of energetic pump that provides the pulse, true word by false word, of my writing life.

(Context: I am working on a project that integrates evolutionary biology, animal ethology, neuroscience and psychology, and religious naturalism. It's my primary focus in life now and so I am blogging about it.)