Sometimes it’s hard just to start writing. But that’s job one.
Lately I’ve been writing essays. I’m in the midst of one right now about Tess, the dog I had when I met Kathy, my wife. Tess took me from youth to middle age. She helped raise our kids.
Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin!—Donald Barthelme
It’s hard to say at this point what the essay is about, other than Tess. Love, I suppose. But as I feel my way through the story, Tess is the frame for what appears. She’s been dead now 22 years, so I’m dealing with the odd mystery of the past.
Which is interesting, and scary—my initial structure helps but provides scant guidance for what should or must or might appear. Every sentence feels like a gift, every paragraph a golden miracle. I could be making a mess. Well, it’s practice. And sometimes it takes my shelving an essay for two years to see how to salvage it.
Having written other essays, though, I know I must try to enjoy this process. Because essays come and go. Their comparatively quick turnaround is great. So is getting a few published here and there. What’s been hard, sometimes, is starting a new one. No basking in a book draft’s long narrative arc—it’s time for the next one. Already. Again.
“Tess” is structured, so far, in reverse chronological order, starting with her death. This morning, I got kind of stuck in the middle and jumped ahead, to near the essay’s end. A snippet from the final section—this part is in second-person address:
“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog
As your puppy grows up your old wooden house in Cocoa Village, what most surprises you is that she doesn’t know how to stop when she runs at you to give and receive love. A couple times, you turn out the light before putting Tess in her crate and climbing into your own bed. Your puppy is black; your house is dark. Tess is like an iron cannonball coming at you, hard and fast, across your bedroom floor. She hits your shins just below your knees. You holler and bend double.
You’ve just learned you’ve won a fellowship to Ohio State. You don’t know how hard it will be to rent a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You’re a reporter, gainfully employed, but you’re becoming a student with a dog. You’ll look at some awful places in scary neighborhoods. You’ll rent a decent one, finally, in an ancient brick building in a student ghetto. Look, there’s a place to sell your blood plasma on the corner. You’ll pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.
But your sleazy landlord will keep your damage deposit when you leave town, because he can. That $300 will be a fortune to you. In time, though, it will be as if he returned it—no, like he gave you a gift—because you’ll never forget the sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.
As I’ve said before, a reluctance to start, and sometimes to keep working, seems based on fear. It sure is in my case, and I read others say that’s their demon. Fear of failure, I guess. If I really build up a story in my mind, delaying beginning is more likely. Some say the problem resides in having too high standards. “Lower the bar,” they say, and they’re right.
Think of writing for a while as just carpentry, I tell myself. Because the literal truth, if not the largest one, is that writing is just working, moment to moment, piecing together sentences. Quantity creates quality—you must have something to revise. And yet, though it’s work, writing is different from corporeal crafts like carpentry or masonry. Words are symbols, and what’s made from them on the page is actually built in the mind.
For the writer at work, of course, the best metaphor for what s/he’s doing doesn’t matter. I urge myself Just get a draft.
Barthelme’s quote above seems to nail the issue, however, of beginning: starting is hard because you’re starting. Nothing’s yet there. Such work is taxing; such labor is effortful. Dinty W. Moore has indicated he dislikes creating his first drafts, at least compared with revision, which he adores. Although I say I love making sentences, and I do, I can relate. An acquaintance, a man who has published many books, once said to me, “Some people can’t sit there. It’s not that I’m more talented or smarter or anything like that. But I can sit there, hour after hour.” This is what it takes to have a practice instead of relying on inspiration.Meantime, I chip away at “Tess,” already past its literal start though without a completed first draft. Since narratives I get excited about while composing are seldom as successful initially as I’ve presumed, I’m hopeful this one works the other way. Maybe it isn’t as muddled as it sometimes appears, coming out. As our Hoosier housekeeper Shirley taught me to say, everything in life or art is what it is “To a point.” So I’m trying to take my doubts less seriously, to a point. Which holds a lesson for all feelings, even positive ones.
Art is about the transmission of emotion, as Leo Tolstoy helpfully codified in What is Art? (A gem, but I’d advise skipping or skimming the first four chapters, an academic discussion of what “beauty” means, and plunging right into Chapter V. Maria Popova recently excerpted it brilliantly on Brain Pickings.) But the feelings that arise from trying to make art can be pests. Panic. Doubt. Despair. Even joy—though I’ll take it. In the past, I’ve been driven to my knees in prayer. Lately I employ a less disruptive move, a Buddhist meditation principle of not taking feelings so seriously.
Ah, an emotion has arisen. Hello excitement. Hello hope. Hello frustration. Hello fear, my old foe. How interesting you’ve joined me! All the same, I’ll keep working. Or at least trying. Or just sitting here. Maybe I’ll discover what lies ahead.
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