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On the ups and downs of an artistic life
When the pandemic started oh these many, mannnnnnnyyyy eons ago, I was 50,000 words into…something. A new project. A memoir-ish thing? Unlike my first book — which took ten years and 8,000 drafts and a big chunk of my mental health along with it — this one was moving along relatively easily. Perhaps, I thought, this was because I was older, had been writing for longer, had already written a full manuscript, unpublished as it might have been. I knew the grind, the commitment, the boredom and pleasure and terror of it all.
Or perhaps it was because this memoir had grown organically out of an essay that refused to end. It kept sprouting more limbs and I’d follow them to their fingertips. It wasn’t like the last one, which someone else had told me, before I’d written all that much, This is a book. (Note: not a good way in.) This one seemed to be telling me it was a book. So I followed it.
My most vivid memories of working on those pages come from the summer we spent in Montreal in 2019. I’d drop the kid at camp and write 1,000 words a day anywhere I could find a chair: in the lounge at the local pool; the coffeeshop; in our odd borrowed house, Jami Attenberg’s voice in my head (you will write 1,000 words today). When I picture that time now, it feels like I was on speed, but all I was doing was fully and utterly committing.
The manuscript was in pieces — purposefully in pieces — which also did wonders to keep me writing. In those early days, I wasn’t worried about that terrible question that plagued me through my first try, “What comes next?” The fractured structure was allowing my mind to jump and associate and play, something I don’t think I’d ever truly allowed myself to do before.
By the time I got to 50,000 words — yes, a substantial number, hooray, but as anyone who has written a book will tell you, nowhere near complete in any, any, any fucking way — the pandemic hit. I don’t need to tell you what happened to all those pages.
At some point over the last few months, I pulled them out again. Maybe my brain had some space for them now? Maybe the time away had been good, not bad? Maybe it would seem fresh, not inert? I braced myself.
Something was off, this I sensed immediately. But I didn’t know quite what. Still, I didn’t trust myself. Was I bored or unsure because the pre-pandemic world I’d written about was now so unfamiliar, so distant, so, by comparison, easy? Who knew? So I sent them off to a friend whose writing I adore and admire for some honest feedback.
She confirmed what I’d suspected: There was a vital chunk missing. A whole storyline or two. This was the problem. A few pieces that I could never, in good conscience, fill in. Not because I was hiding any huge traumas or secrets — nothing like that — but because I knew that, even at its best, this book would only be my very specific (definitely faulty, definitely full-of-blind-spots) take on family life. (All books are the writer’s specific take.) Did I really want to give everyone access?
You’re protecting people, my friend said, and for this to work, you can’t do that. The minute she said it, it was plain as day. I didn’t even need to grumble or argue or cry: she was spot-on. The project couldn’t hold up as I’d conceived of it. It was like finding out that your long dining room table has three legs.
Maybe, I later realized, it had been going well because I was purposefully (or unconsciously?) avoiding writing some of the harder, more scary-to-me things. You don’t always have to point your students toward the bomb, a mentor told me a decade ago when I was teaching nonfiction workshops to undergrads. They don’t need to write about the most difficult thing.
But without it, the piece often just didn’t work.
So. Back into the drawer it went.
Lately I’ve been pulling out pieces of the partial manuscript to see them float off as little essays. This is satisfying in its own way, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as sitting with all those pages and figuring out how the hell you’re going to make sense of them as a whole. There’s grit involved in that process, a pushing through something difficult and seemingly solid and intractable to get to something better, more malleable, something more true and full and multifaceted. The key, it seems, is in knowing: what’s the good kind of pushing and what’s the bad kind?
It reminds me a little of one of the earliest lessons I was taught — but absolutely did not learn — in my yoga teacher training, twenty years ago: learn to distinguish between an uncomfortable sensation and pain. An uncomfortable sensation is wanting to check your email when the scene is not working; needing, suddenly, to make a banana bread instead of writing the hard part. Pain is performing CPR on a manuscript that perhaps doesn’t want to live anymore. Some pieces can be donated to better causes.
But how do you know? How do you know that little ache in your hamstring is just a little tightness, not a tear right through the belly of the muscle?
The artist’s life is full of so many little deaths. All of our lives are, really. Just this morning, I opened up The Artist’s Way and confirmed, once again, that Julia Cameron can read minds: “All artists,” she writes, “must learn the art of surviving loss: loss of hope, loss of face, loss of money, loss of self-belief.”
So many projects we begin will fail. Or will fall apart. Or will be broken up into pieces and be well received that way instead of how we intended them to be loved or read or listened to or held between our hands. Maybe those aren’t failures at all. It’s so hard to know. But it’s no reason not to try.
ALL THE THINGS
I have a piece up on Cup of Jo this week about growing up in the shadow of two stillbirths. Very excited about my new books: The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka and Body Work by Melissa Febos. I’m just finishing Jasmine Guillory’s While We Were Dating, which is very sexy and so very relaxing. Wow, this poem. Roxane Gay’s take on that Oscar moment is the best take. I can’t turn this off. Oh, these two, what a love story.