The other day, Isaiah looked over my shoulder at the computer screen, and asked what I was reading. He said it seemed like The Wuggy Chronicles. As a matter of fact, he was right. Those were my words, and I wasn't sure which pleased me more; that my son was able to accurately identify narrative voices, or that I'd finally found mine again.
It's been a while. The prose dried up a few year years ago. I stopped writing very much of it, and when I did write, it would be dry and forced. But thank God, not all words have to be prose, and I wrote a lot of poetry in the mean time. A sonnet doesn't drop down from heaven full-formed after all, but is something that you can sit down and force yourself to do. There's no guarantee that it won't be horrible, but sometimes the very force of your forcing is what gives a poem its life and energy. And then I found that sometimes sonnets really do just show up in your mind full-formed; that if you spend enough time forcing yourself to write poems, sometimes the poems will begin to force themselves upon you. This was exhilarating, and also slightly debilitating. Poems don't wait for convenient times, and I burned a lot of dinners.
But then the poems dried up too. All those time when I thought I was forcing myself to write sonnets, it was really partly an illusion. The choosing was real, and was needful, but it turned out to be only a small part of it. There was something else there, too, and all the choosing in the world couldn't bring it back.
The timing felt just terrible. There were things that I needed to say, had to say, but the words were gone. So I read a lot books on writing, and I tried to learn to write my prose on purpose like a grownup. I crafted meticulous outlines, set myself word count goals, and if this was some sort of school assignment, I'm pretty sure I would have gotten an A. But for all that, the fire never made it out of my bones and onto the page.
I fell in love with Anne Lamott quite on accident, when I got her name mixed up with Annie Dillard and read Traveling Mercies. After that I read Bird by Bird on purpose, and I absolutely adored it. I tried so hard to take her advice and write lousy first drafts, save the editing for later, but it never worked. If I didn't edit myself, word by painstaking absurdly slow word, I wouldn't be able to find any more words to write at all, good or bad. And on those rare occasions when I did manage to get it out on paper, I wouldn't know how to fix it.
Looking back, I guess I learned that always, always, I'm writing blind, and when I pretend to know where the words are supposed to go, it's just not true. There was nothing to do but to simply write what I could, and to wait.
But then a few weeks ago, a perfectly ordinary day was suddenly and decisively a story about everything I've been thinking during those proseless years, and I've been chipping away at it ever since. It's slow slogging, just a few words a day, with much more rearranging and polishing than the story seems to warrant, but I'm starting to be okay with the fact that this isn't up to me. I don't get to choose whether or what to write, and I don't get to choose how fast to write it or how well it will turn out. All I get to choose is how faithful I will be in the living and the telling of my stories, and in the perplexing ever-changing interdependent tension between them. It looks a little different every day, and I can rarely see more than a few words ahead. Faithfulness turns out to be more about faith than I thought.
Last night, Andrew took September to the beach for a little father-daughter camping trip. Whenever he's away, I like to fall asleep listening to a lecture or an audiobook, and this time I found an Ann Voskamp interview on YouTube. And oh! She too writes slow, editing as she goes, and for her as well, the writing comes before the seeing. So apparently this too must be a way of writing, and I am ever so glad, because this is the only way that I can write.
And now that I'm chipping away at the story that I have to write, but don't know if I can, I'm starting to jot down the beginnings of all sorts of other stories too. Perhaps these are stories that I can write at convenient moments, when I'm not in danger of burning anything. We'll see. There are no guarantees, no knowing ahead of time, only the blind faithfulness of showing up and writing anyway. And come to think of it, I'm pretty sure that's what Anne Lamott was getting at all along.
Michael Symmons Roberts*
1 day ago