Why I Bother
“Every calling is great when greatly pursued.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
Why do I bother? I've asked myself this question daily, sometimes hourly. It happens anytime I sit down to write. First there are the questions: Why is this important? Who do I think I am? What the heck are my characters doing now? How does this fit into what I'm trying to do? The relentless questions are typically followed by feelings of worthlessness.
As insidious as undetected pinpricks in a garden hose, my insecurities seep out: I can't do this. I'm not good enough. It takes me some time to get a grip. The only thing that helps is to stay put, in front of the laptop, focused on the work, and asking myself, over and over again, what am I trying to say. This last question is helpful.
A friend of mine echoed similar feelings when we talked about writing earlier this week. She had just finished reading the novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. "It's such wonderful writing. You're blown away. But then you wonder what's the point of your own writing." My friend is a very talented writer. And hard working too. She squeezes revising and editing her novel in and around her day job and her responsibilities as filmmaker, wife and mother. She's more than committed to her craft. Still when you read something so incredible, it's difficult not to question yourself and your own abilities.
As I was finishing my own novel set in the heart of the largest refugee crisis the world has seen since WWII, I read, Little Bee by author, Chris Cleave. The story is about a Nigerian asylum seeker and a British magazine editor. If you read my blogs regularly you would have found a review of Little Bee. I loved the novel, but it also made me want to stop working on my project altogether. What did I have to say about refugees that Cleave hadn't already said? And brilliantly I might add.
Writers are encouraged to read. I try to read the very best fiction and non-fiction I can get my hands on, arguing that if I read well, this excellence will transfer to my own writing. But as a writer, reading a work of genius leaves me a little unhinged.
This profession like most artistic pursuits is rife with uncertainty. And I'm the queen when it comes to feeling insecure.
I finished Anne Giardini's book, Startle and Illuminate, this week. The book is co-authored by Anne's son, Nicholas and is a collection of essays and letters Carol Shields penned about writing. Anne is Carol's daughter. She had enlisted her son's help to comb the archives to find the material for this book. Startle and Illuminate makes for wonderful reading for both emerging and established writers. It's a reminder of the lessons of our craft: "I honestly believe that writing succeeds or fails at the sentence level." Or "I can see it. This must happen or the manuscript is dead." Or "Some narratives move very slowly. Let them move at their pace." Or "Every writer is troubled with getting what's in the head onto paper." I like this last one very much. It makes me feel that I'm not alone.
Then as if Carol was listening in on the conversation I'd had with my friend or perhaps was privy to my uncertainties, I stumbled onto the following passage: "Learn to rely on your own voice and to have faith in the value of your own experiences. There is an empty space on the bookshelf that only your voice and story can fill." Isn’t that last line lovely? It felt as though she was talking directly to me, encouraging, yes, and wagging her finger, too: get on with it.
I'm going to put that line at the corner of my laptop so when I'm at my most vulnerable I will be reminded of why I bother. Knowing me, I will need the reminder.
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