Sunday, August 30, 2015

Don't Make It All Brilliant

Thinking Back, Looking Ahead

Bridge over SCSU entrance

Dear Self,

You hesitated again. You were awake in the early hours, looking at the white, empty glare of a wordless page. You approached your computer, sat, and immediately felt weight, sting, a flare of fear. You dreamed, just for a instant, with your fingers suspended over the keys, of forms and voices, all your own. But you hesitated, then strode to the other side of the room again. It was a fear so visceral, it made you flee.

You're afraid lately, and you should be. (Don't let anyone tell you that you shouldn't be.) This summer has let you stand with one foot on success, the other dangling over an unknown abyss. On that one sure foot, you've grown, dear. You learned the personal discipline of writing for yourself, of not relying on others for direction or deadline but rather trusting in your own hard work and inspiration. Your blossoming publishing record has given you confidence that others find value in your work, and that you have the ability to leave a sliver-sized mark in the writing world. I mention all this not to inflate your ego or to say you've got it down pat; I say it to remind you that you are, indeed, a writer. Your heart and talent is in it, girl, and nothing fulfills you like this does.

Keep at it, for Lord's sake.

Somewhere between steadiness and instability, you've also seen what life and love can do to the artist. In love, you now know both the breaking and strength of a heart in five months' distance from a loved one; and, of course, the mend of reunion. You learned that love can be silent; that it can be an unspoken, mutual drive for creation as you work in separate corners; that, sometimes, the human warmth of another in a room is enough. In life, you've overcome months of writer's block with solitude and a hint of sad memories. You've pulled your hair over bad word-choices and confusing editors and submission etiquette, and that is perfectly okay -- you are a learner in this field, and experience is among the best of teachers.

You may feel a little woozy from the ups and downs, but they are normal, and you'll learn to make rhythms with them.

Then there is the dangling foot on the edge, that pesky thing called Future (which isn't so very far away). Tomorrow marks the beginning of your graduate studies as an MFA fictioneer. The emotions of anticipation you feel contain some excitement, I think, but mostly terror -- terror both general and
intimate. (Please, don't be ashamed of that.) With this step, you're balancing life changes, namely finding yourself loving somebody 7,000 miles away. You look forward to entering a community of fellow writers, while fearing judgement. You're grateful for the challenge to prove yourself, while fearing you'll be proven a fraud. There is the up-close, day-to-day terror: the hesitation. How to write without another supportive heartbeat in the room. How to write with the weight of giving a character life and the fear that it might not be enough life. How to write with the sting of words meant to sing and the fear that their melody might fall flat. Your strength and weakness is your high standards, dear. They will keep you improving, or they will keep you hesitating.

How do you push past the pause?

Dearest, my advice to the over-the-edge you is to look back on the on-the-ground you. When things get messy this fall (and they will -- don't delude yourself to thinking they won't); when despair and self-doubt threaten to shatter your drive, look back on what you did this summer. If a small voice ever whispers, "You're not fit for this," I give you permission to bask in your past glory a little bit, and remind yourself, "I'm a writer." Whether you write ten or three hours a week, whether you succeed at a project or fail at it, writing is what fulfills you, so a writer is what you are. Don't forget it.

My second advice to you is confusing, and I don't know if others will quite understand it, but it is this: don't make it all brilliant. This is not permission to be lazy. Don't you ever, ever cast aside that desperate, insatiable, impossible desire to be the best writer you can be. But at the same time, when you feel suffocated under the weight of what feels like a duty to be perfect, I bid you to take a moment to look back on what you wrote this summer, without professors or community or grades. Did every item you wrote achieve perfection in every aspect? No. Didn't every poem, every piece, fall short, just a little, on something: a flowing rhythm, but a limited vocabulary; glittering words, but simplified form? In your strive for greatness, it is tempting to think you must shine in every stylistic element -- but you'll only blind yourself and your readers that way. Don't be afraid to let one area sparkle, and highlight that sparkle with understatement elsewhere.

Moreover, dear, when your heart is aching because one story didn't achieve everything another did, I want you to look back and count, both in your writings and in others'. Does every piece you've read or written shatter the world? Does every piece represent the author at his or her absolute best? No. But I ask you this: does that eliminate the piece's value? Wasn't there always some one, small, beautiful thing to capture? Didn't the smudge of imperfection somehow make it all the more moving? Don't make it all brilliant, writer. Have faith that your work can be pleasant, or glorious, or simple, or far-reaching, and that in any of those it can achieve something valuable. You don't always have to shout symphonies; be content with a little ditty at times.

It sounds selfish, but remember that this is all to make you happy. And if happy is writing one great novel and a million mediocre poems, there is no one in the universe who can call that wrong.

Grace and peace and best wishes to you.

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