Lately I’ve been compelled by the magic of watching my plants grow. There are no leaves on the trees outside yet, only a scattering of early crocuses on the ground. But inside my apartment, green, living things are everywhere. Every day I find myself pouring over each inch of them, watching precious new leaves slowly unfurl on my brand new hibiscus, or whole branches quickly spring up from our overly-enthusiastic rubber plant. I watch the dozens of buds on our lemon tree swell and begin to show a touch of white at the tip of their formerly-green spheres. It’s happening so slowly, but every day I can see progress, see changes, see the promise of things to come. It thrills me, draws me in and fascinates me in a way I’ve never quite experienced before. I’ve always liked having lots of plants around, but I’ve never had the patience to really immerse myself in the daily experience of developing life. I do now, suddenly, for no reason I can point to. It’s strangely intoxicating.
So why the heck can’t I feel the same way about my stupid writing?
Seriously, the metaphor is there. I’m working on a new(ish) novel, and writing something long and complicated is so much like tending my plants that it’s actually slightly absurd. Every day I have to sit down at my computer to water my work with words, feed it with the light of my attention. I comb over the new growth that has developed in my mind overnight, choosing what to nurture and what to prune, watching each tiny bud of an idea develop and swell and ripen. It is slow work, but there are changes every day for those with the patient eye willing to see them. The promise is there. And however subtle it might be, steady growth is taking place.
But I’m not intoxicated by this process. I’m about ready to tear my hair out.
Why is it so different? If I have the patience for one thing, surely I must have the patience for both. I’m a knitter, too, and there’s yet another metaphor in the wings about patience, about making a story/sweater one word/stich at a time. I’ve got the slow-and-steady-growth thing DOWN. Writing a novel should be totally natural to me at this point.
Unfortunately, it’s not working out that way this time around. I’m impatient. Each new page I write just feels like a new page I’ll have to edit later, and maybe get some critique on, and then edit again. I want to skip to the end. I want it to be done NOW. But why? Why am I excited to watch a literal tree grow, but I can’t even handle waiting for this story to be finished? What the heck is the difference?
I’m just going to skip to the answer here and stop beating around the bush (or lemon tree). It’s fear. I’m afraid of my novel in a way that I am not afraid of my lemon tree or even the sweater that I’m working on.
If the blossoms on this tree come out ugly, or turn brown and fall off before they completely bloom, I will be disappointed, but it won’t hurt me in any way. If I finish this sweater and it doesn’t fit right, or if it’s really unflattering or just poorly made, it’s not really a big deal: I’ll just unravel it and go make something else. The fun was in the making anyway.
I don’t have any stake in this lemon tree, and nothing is hanging on this sweater. They don’t matter.
But my novel… that matters. If I write a bad novel, that means I’m a bad writer, right? If people want to read it, or maybe even BUY it, then all that hard work I put in was worth while. It means something. But if people don’t like it, if no one buys it, then…then…that would mean…
Wait, what would that mean? That I wasted my time? That this whole writing thing is a pointless endeavor that I should’ve been smart enough to give up on before I flushed so much time and energy down the toilet? That I am not only a bad writer, but somehow a bad person, lacking the moral fiber necessary to recognize how my own effort would best be spent for the benefit of myself, my family and the world? That’s what happens if this novel doesn’t come out freaking perfect, right? Right?
I’m just going to assume that I don’t need to explain to you how absurd that idea is. We’re all reasonably intelligent people here, we can see the obvious flaws in that way of thinking.
So…if the absurdity of this fear is so very obvious, why can’t I let it go?
I keep thinking about this Ted Talk that Elizabeth Gilbert gave a few years ago. It was all about how poisonous our modern understanding of creativity, as a thing that we simultaneously DO and ARE, really is. How it literally kills so many of our greatest creative minds, because the pressure caused by linking our identities, who we are as a person, to the things we create is unbearable. She talks about how much healthier the attitude of the ancient Greeks was. They believed that our best creative ideas did not in fact come from us, but rather came through us. This belief broke the link between the creation and the identity of the creator. It provided a healthy distance between the process of doing the work and the eventual outcome.
Anyway, it’s a great talk, I won’t try to summarize the whole thing here, you should just watch it for yourself.
She really nailed the problem that I’m having. I can be passionately enthralled by the development of a budding flower because I am not afraid of the outcome. The flower is not me. I care about it’s success or failure, but my own success or failure is not tied to it. So I can enjoy the process, patiently and happily, day by day, without fear. From a distance.
But my novel…that’s another story. My writing is who I am. If it’s bad, then I’m bad.
That’s not sustainable. I can’t live like that. Somehow, I need to rip the roots of my work out of my soul.
But what happens if I do that? Can my work live outside of my self-identity? If I somehow succeed at this impossible-seeming task, will I in the process have accidently killed the beautiful flower of my ideas? I worry that I care about my work as much as I do because it is so much a part of me. If I change that fact, make a distance between it and I, will I still care enough? Will the fragile structure of my creation be irreparably harmed by being disconnected from my deepest passions?
Is the fear actually a key element in the ineffable mystery that is art?
I don’t know. I hope the answer is no, because I really, really want to find a more joyous, peaceful place to write from. But if I am being really, really honest here, I’m actually not sure that I can remove the fear from my process without also removing the passion. And I truly believe that it is the passion that distinguishes a mediocre story from a great story.
So, what do I do? Do I struggle along in pain and fear, hoping that someday the external validation of other people’s approval somehow insulates me from my own self doubt? Or do I try to distance myself from my work, risking extinguishing that spark of passion that, when all else is said and done, is in itself what truly makes the work worth doing in the first place?
I don’t know. I really, truly don’t know. So I guess I’m just going to keep stumbling on, blind and confused and doing the best I can, day by day, and hope for the best. I’ll take comfort in my lemon blossoms, and soon in the budding of leaves on the trees outside, and I’ll keep trying to figure it all out, knowing that I probably never will.
Shit, guys. Art is hard.