A writer of modest talent can only hope one day to put together a word or two—on a rare week, a phrase—that’s worth keeping. This is not the conceit of petty perfectionism. This is just the reality of having a mediocre vision that cannot totally grasp what floats in and out of view. It’s the curse of having a mind’s eye that comes close enough to see the possibilities dimly, but does not quite have that extra something that would make it all clear. The curse of the ‘if-only’. The torture of the dreamer who is granted a taste of a truth in the night but loses it upon wakening. The humility of Moses on the border of the promised land who may not cross over, no matter the sacrifice. And virtue is no guarantee. The world often rewards those of questionable credentials.
It’s a frustration that has to be managed—The gap between what might be glimpsed, a brief impression of something sublime and the skill that, were it a painting, only manages stick figure drawings.
So the experience is one of enduring the sense of of constant failure —even accepting it as the price— to press the cheek up against the foggy glass that keeps one just beyond the truth…. Throwing the lariat a thousand times at a stallion that prances just out of reach, hoping that one more throw will tame the beast and bring him nearer, to feel the heat and the true wild life of him. Yet still, as seems to be the way of the Plan, It is a way to learn humility, and patience and forgiveness. Nothing need be wasted, and the great wheel grinds always, and grinds exceedingly small.
That’s the job. Putting up with failure long enough to feel the hot breath of something beautiful. It is insanity. But oh, so seductive.
I write because I’m impatient with anyone or anything that doesn’t inform my work, or lead to it. Everything seems trivial unless I can put it to work somehow. I’m just a thief and a scavenger of little things, as writers are: stealing fragments of ideas, a mannerism, a moral failing or triumph; a glimpse of a beautiful woman with green eyes who passes in the crowd and slams me to the ground with instant love and lust, but is then gone forever. A childhood sorrow to be processed like an undigested bit of potato; the way the sunrise looks just once, on a particular morning, in the austere light of the high desert; the oh, so desolate pain of a journey through grief, and how the blood seems to press against the heart; a moment of decision, a choice weighed with no guarantees, a wrestling with fear, a private testing of the soul, like Jacob’s battle with the angel on the ladder.
And is all as though in a dream that might be gone in an instant.
When I’m listening to someone I am also thinking about how they present information— more analysis than critique. But it irritates me when they’re lazy or sloppy or maudlin or too easily satisfied or too self-indulgent or could have done something better, or used a better word. I do the same to myself, to be fair. But our first commandment is as Socrates said, “know thyself.”
When I’m reading work I admire I get involved in the story, but a part of my brain is also noticing techniques and seeing the skill and subtle evidence of their gift. And then I steal it, if I can. Without shame. Like a raven charmed by a bit of bright cloth or the twinkly something shiny in the tall grass, I swoop in and snatch it away and escape with an unhuman cry of joy.
I write because it is all I think about, even when I’m walking in the woods or gazing at the surf or a bird, or a homeless person. Part of me is always observing, trying to study the details, noting if they strike a chord in me, or come together in some kind of pattern.
Sometimes it hurts too much to do this, so I have to force myself to look, record, remember.
And then, I write, reluctantly and only after resisting. And after, the insistent pushing gives me peace, for a while. I dip my toe in the river, the endless river, that is one, from the headwaters in the snow on the mountain, to the sea. And feel a part of the whole.
“I write because I must. It’s a calling, a curse, a compulsion, a completion.” —Mary Oliver, “Upstream”