A few weeks ago at 5 p.m. I pushed my chair away from my desk. I had only three hundred words of prose to show for an eight-hour day. Not that I had stopped to shake popcorn or weed my garden. I had sat and stared. I’d written a sentence and crossed it out. I’d stared. I’d written half a sentence and crossed half of it out. Eventually fit words had filled a page, but the day was over; night had drawn nigh.
Later that evening I unleashed my frustration on a patient, trusted listener; I tried to explain my ambivalence. My drive to write and my dread of the process. I cried, sobbed actually, and when he felt there was hope of a smile my friend finally spoke: “Maybe you should find one of those groups, you know, ‘My name is Evelyn B. and I’m a writer’.”
If such a group existed I might be in good company. Mark Twain could admit the struggle: “Last summer I...could only make two little wee things, 1,550 words altogether, succeed — only that out of piles and stacks of diligently-wrought MSS, the labor of six weeks’ unremitting effort.”
I never wanted to be a writer. Struggling over a paper due for a college creative writing class, I sat in the library horrified at a sudden insight: There were people who wrote for a living. Why would anyone choose to do this? Digging for words you’re not sure you want to find. Clarifying thoughts you’re not sure you want to name. Crafting sentences you’re not sure you want to claim.
Only now, fifteen years and five books later, can I make a stab at an answer: I didn’t choose this search for words as much as I was drafted, like the servants in Jesus’ Matthew 25 story to whom the master entrusted coins known as talents.
Talents. Gifts. If I allow myself to slice my gifts into day-sized pieces, then view one at a time, I feel more cursed than blessed. Fr. Peter Daly aptly described God’s call on a life: “You can’t stop that insistent ringing until you answer the phone” (Washington Post, June 18, 1989).
Though all gifts have their “what am I doing” days, I find writers especially burdened with the process of their craft. Several years ago I drove into Washington, D.C. to Wesley Seminary for a meeting of a local group called the Arts and Religion Forum. I don’t remember what any of the panelists — a writer, painter and performer — said about their art, only that something prompted me to ask if they didn’t feel the work torturous, as I did. My comment seemed to appall both the panel and the audience—except for the few writers in the room. They understood what I was talking about.
I have a theory: Writing is hard because it is a mental balancing act. You must maintain a free-wheeling mind set that isn’t bound by preconceived judgments. (How else will you scrounge for metaphor?) Yet you are simultaneously reined in by the rigid definitions of words and structure of sentences. If you like to think in terms of right-and-left-brain activity, both sides are tugging until the internal fight exhausts you. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates describes the tension: “Creativity seems to occur when there is an unforced balance between will and will-lessness.” Yes, though some days the balance feels forced.
So why not just walk away and leave the gift behind? Maybe the words, paragraphs, and poems are like children birthed in pain. Why would anyone choose to go through this? For the hope of the joy.
When asked to fill in the blank, “I’m most happy when ________”, I answer, “I’ve just gotten the last line of a poem.” It’s then all worthwhile. I feel doubly blessed if I see or hear that it is an arrowhead quickened by the Spirit straight into a reader’s heart.
Recently I saw Babette’s Feast, Isak Dinisen’s wonderful tale of a woman’s attempt to redeem the gift she’d been given. Once acclaimed as the best chef in France, Babette had fled to Denmark as a political refugee. Taken in by two Spartan spinster sisters, she served them for 14 years, dutifully baking ale bread and boiling fish. But one day Babette won the lottery jackpot. With the hefty sum she prepared the feast of a lifetime, serving it to the remnants of the austere Christian sect founded by the sisters’ father.
So as not to offend Babette who has served them so long and well, the group concedes to eat and drink the finest offerings of France. Reluctantly. Suspiciously.
One of the delightful word games in the story is the ascetic group’s repetitious singing of a paraphrase of Jesus’ promise: “Never would you give a stone/ To the child who begs for bread.” The biblical text goes on to say that God’s gifts surpass our requests.
The movie’s irony is that the meal is over before the sisters’ eyes are opened to the value and art of the gifts before them. They had asked for ale bread; they had feared they’d been given a scorpion. Instead, they had been served real-turtle soup and cailles en sarcophage.
I still foresee days when the gift of words will feel like a curse. On mornings when the labor is hard, I must remember to hold on to the hope of the joy. I must remember that I’m not alone. Annie Dillard reminded me of this in the May 28, 1989 New York Times Book Review: “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace...you search, you break your fists, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.”
Perhaps it’s so with all who would redeem the gift they’ve been given. The struggle to be faithful to that gift is propelled by the hope of joy — whether the gift is in dealing with numbers instead of words, with people perhaps, or with programs and policies. All have their mornings when labor is hard. And all hold that possibility of great joy, when eyes are opened to the value and art of the gifts before them. When the results are worth the cost of bearing the gift.