Monday, March 22, 2010

Climbing in thin air

Annie Dillard's The Writing Life is a book that has resonated with me for a long time.  I've read several books about the writing process.  Stephen King's On writing, which I loved every bit as much as I've loathed his fiction.  Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, who I'd never heard of before, opened up a new world to me, continues to help me at moments, particularly when I'm stuck and would rather be doing anything but writing, even those things I hate, like cleaning toilets! I don't like her fiction much either, but her memoirs, Traveling Mercies, Plan B, Grace Eventually have all touched something in me because they aren't usual stories of how people come to faith and stay in faith.  They're worth reading, worth being stretched by.

But Annie Dillard. Her practical approach appeals to anyone who dreams of writing.  It's better than a writing workshop, because she's clear-sighted, and understands the difficulties--reveals them as she's living them.  She doesn't stand in front of you, telling you how to do it, she works through it for herself, and you--the reader--get to participate in it.  The inability to throw away what doesn't or even to recognize what doesn't work is a serious disability for the writer.  A writer must learn to hold her writing loosely, not becoming too attached to it.  But this is the hardest balancing act in the world, because the very act of creating means holding on.

     "Several delusions weaken the writers resolve to throw away work.  If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry know by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.  He will retain them...Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again that blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared--relief that he was writing anything at all.  That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all..."  Dillard

This is exactly true of my experience, though I didn't see it for a long time.  The first--say 30 pages--of OA I'd left untouched for several years before my editor--a very wise woman moved to touch them.  She understood this need to keep them in tact.  And it took me even longer to realize that perhaps the entire work needed to be shelved.  But here's a secret I scarcely tell myself.  I knew a couple of years before the word came from the east that it wouldn't happen.  I knew I'd reached a dead end, and needed to lay the book down, that no matter what others would say about me being a quitter, etc, that for some inexplicable (at least for now) reason, God was saying, "Let go.  Lay it on the altar." People I know well, love better, tried to talk me out of this.  And, because it was also in me, I allowed it.  I wanted to be talked out of it.  I didn't want to let this book die.  How could I?

But God's ways aren't our ways. His purposes aren't ours.  And I do not know what He intended then, nor what He intends now.  Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had obeyed Him two years earlier, if I hadn't had to be crushed from without by an agent in New York, but had made the decision from within.  But that doesn't matter now.

Annie Dillard says this: "I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.  During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders and hope it will get better.
But this tender relationship can change in a twinkling.  If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you."
The work turned on me.  And God knew it.  And it was dead.  It had died on me and I had to let it go.  Someday, it may be resurrected, but I do not hope for that.  Have lived with the grief for over a year now, and have come to terms with the gap it left.  Wish, with everything in me, that I hadn't had it on life support for the last two years before someone else had to pull the plug.  It's almost like I tried to climb beyond the end of the ladder, if that makes sense.  I went as far as I was meant to go, but then kept on climbing. And it's like one of those cartoons I watched as a kid--for a split second I was still climbing in thin air, then paralyzed.  Then fell.  And no wonder, if God had asked me to put it down two years earlier.

So Annie Dillard, whom I read years ago, is good to come back to.  In the end, though, it's her words about the more significant things that find purchase, and help me grip the ladder, or even better, grip terra firma.

"There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by.  A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough.  The life of sensations is the life of greed; it requires more and more.  The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.  Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spend reading--that is a good life."

I love this because I've spent so many days in my life reading.  Even as a child, when there were adults around me, chiding me for reading where there were so many things to do.  I remember sitting in the shade of a tree at our property on Whidbey Island one summer afternoon, when it was very hot, with a good book in my hand, lost in the story.  My grandmother made me put the book away, "Why are you wasting your time reading?"  I felt guilty for 'only reading' when I could be 'doing' something more worthwhile.  But deep inside, those other things often felt like the waste, when I wanted to get back to whatever story was pulling at my imagination.  It may have been greed, as Dillard says, but now I think I wouldn't have lived my life any other way, that people who don't read "inhabit tiny world," as CS Lewis says.  I would not live there.  I want the larger, the good life that shares with what has gone before, and enlarges my spirit to live more fully in this world.

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