August 9, 2011 § 14 Comments
I’ve long believed that what has kept writers, again myself included, from fully transcending their personal experiences on the page was fear of incompetence: I can’t write a plot that involves a kidnapping because I’ve never been kidnapped, etc. But what if it’s the opposite? What if the reason we find it so difficult to cleave our fiction from our experience, the reason we’re so loath to engage our imaginations and let the story rise above the ground floor of truth isn’t that we’re afraid we’ll do the job poorly, but that we’re afraid we’ll do it too well? … Maybe we’re afraid that if we write what we don’t know, we’ll discover something truer than anything our real lives will ever yield.
– from “Don’t Write What You Know,” by Bret Anthony Johnston, the Atlantic Fiction 2011
I read these words while I was sitting outside the Lodge at Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon. We were there for two days for a dear friend’s wedding while the boys were three hours away at their grandparents’ house. We have never left them for that long before and after 12 hours of sadness and a bit of anxiety, I came to a place of peace. I came to the realization that they were having a blast.
Sitting there, looking up at those snow capped mountains, I also came to a place of homecoming. I came to another realization that even though I spent half my life on the east coast, it’s never been home to me the way the west is, where I’ve spent the other half of my life. I’ve been working so hard to make Virginia home, but that experience has been like walking with my head down, gazing at the cracks in the sidewalk. Virginia is just the ground floor of truth and trying too hard to love it is like trying to force a square peg in a round hole. It’s been like trying to deny my own discreet and infinite hunger.
But of course this is not about Virginia, is it? What I’m really talking about is my own tendency to try to drink from a block of clay rather than molding it into a bowl that can hold water.
This quote pertains directly to my own experience of writing fiction, of writing 50 pages and then being stopped by the paralyzing fear of being incompetent. And it also pertains directly to my own experience of living, of being afraid to dream, to rise past the ground floor of truth because I am afraid I will do it too well. That the world I envision for myself may be too lovely for someone like myself to inhabit. That to abide in the world I long for means making myself open to disaster. That sometimes, being available to beauty is the most terrifying thing there is.
Beauty and disaster. Isn’t that what life is, ultimately and only? I know I believe that. And remaining open to both is, for me, a daily exercise.
Oh, and GET BACK TO THAT NOVEL. I know there’s a line of people waiting to read it, and I’m in the front of the line. xox
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we admire it so because it calmly disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke
This beauty you seek will calmly disdain to destroy you. So go ahead. Let it rip. Write, baby, Write!
Oh my dear Pamela, your imagery here is breathtaking — drinking from a block of clay rather than molding it into a bowl that can hold water. This is so apt, and so beautifully put. I believe, even if you don’t quite, yet, that you are more than competent — in fact, you are an artist in both realms, both the living and the writing. I agree: just keep doing what you’re doing, and don’t spend another minute wondering if you can.
WOW! That quote is sooo powerful and very much how I feel a lot of the time while writing (or not)! Thanks for sharing that.
I really hope you continue writing the 50 pages that you’ve started. Like I’ve said before I’d love to read whatever you write.
That last sentence is pure brilliance, and the interesting thing is that in all your posts you seem to point directly at this. I am always left in awe at the beauty you find in daily life and the fact that you are so capable of staring your terror in the face with dignity and grace. This is what always leaves me breathless when reading your words.
“to rise past the ground floor of truth because I am afraid I will do it too well.” – You don’t need to be afraid because you already do this so amazingly well!
Like Katrina, I was positively struck by the image of drinking from a block of clay – both because of its power and because it is such a perfect description of something I do without even realizing it.
I also relate deeply to the idea of living in a place that’s not quite home. I’ve lived in my current town for four years and still don’t think of it as home, but your post has made me think about all of the metaphorical and existential places we live – and about how I might mold myself and mold my environment so that we might live together more harmoniously.
Thank you, as always, my dear, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. xo
Thanks so much for sharing these beautiful words, Pamela. I do look forward to reading your novel some day. Beauty, terror, confidence, doubt, fear, love… perhaps the most important thing is to just keep moving forward with faithful feet. They do know where to go, if only you will let them lead you!
I really, really love this. And I think you’re right.
Wow. That image of trying to drink from a block of clay rather than mold it into a bowl… I’m going to be savoring that one for a long time.
I have never understood the whole “you’re just scared of being too fabulous” thing. “Nope, I’m pretty sure I’m just scared of sucking,” I always thought.
But then I read this: “the world I envision for myself may be too lovely for someone like myself to inhabit” and I understood. YES. I am scared of THAT.
Maybe the part of the clay we carve away is like the fear and untruth that blocks us, the idea that we all are not of a piece; and perhaps the space that’s left when we carve away at our blocks is precisely what makes the block-turned-bowl useful—as well as beautiful even when nothing appears to be in it… or when the water comes, like a mountain lake carved by glaciers, and later effortlessly filled by them as they melt.
Drinking from a block of clay instead of molding into a bowl from which to drink. You, my friend, are a master word smith.
This post reminds me of a Marianne Williamson quote, which I’m certain you know: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us.” When I first read this quote, I could feel the truth seeping out of it.
Just like I do when I read your words. Write lady, write. xoxo
Write the book. Dream the dream. You are powerful, beautiful and deserving.
Feel free to move back west too. 🙂
Every writer walks this road. Every. That clay metaphor — if that isn’t a writer talking, then nothing is.
There’s a useful blog to inspire writers–perhaps you’ve heard of it–called Tribal Writer, by Justine Musk. She says things like, “You are opening up your inner life to me, so that I might recognize myself in it, and open up my life to you.” Pretty good.
Dear God. That last paragraph skewered me through the gut. WAY too close to home. Way.
I’m with the others–the image of someone trying to drink from a block of clay is absolutely brilliant.
This is exquisite, Pamela – almost exquisite as you are.
I hope you will continue to find your way, to push the boundaries you have built around yourself, to take deep breaths and move forward, one sentence at a time.
You are such pure good, my friend. I see you.
Love, and courage, and strength to you…