I’ve been thinking again about why I do what I do, why I write what I write. December began at a dead run. All the activities were activities of abundance: a full slate of students at the new Writing Center, meetings with my writer’s group and people who are helping me with writer’s events, author fairs, speaking engagements, the beginning round of holiday parties, and, almost overwhelmed among everything else, my confirmation. Testament that, with all of the to-dos and the must-dos, I am still trying to keep an eye on the spiritual path. But the question that kept coming up was, why am I so busy? Do I *want* all of this? Where is the quiet, the time to simply write?
(If you’re asking what sort of faith community embraces a radical feminist/social and environmental justice activist, the answer is, the Episcopalians. In their interpretation of Scripture, the big JC shares the same beliefs and causes that I do.)
I eagerly awaited the publication of a personal essay I wrote this summer, about reaching a milestone birthday, struggling with my as-yet-unrealized ambitions, and walking a labyrinth for the first time. (It’s now up at Literary Mama, by the way, and I’m humbled and delighted to see it there. I have visited the site several times already, just to pet it, like a beloved child, and also note that there are no comments.) That one acceptance, and the communications with my lovely editor, seemed affirmation that I did have something to say, something that might touch other people gently, soulfully, with inspiration or laughter, or a just a tender new way of looking at their own life. That is all I really want, after all: for my words to matter, somehow. To instruct, to teach, to bring knowledge or awareness, sometimes to entertain, sometimes provoke, and sometimes to simply lead away for a while from the pressures of life, and then bring one back restored, polished, fed, renewed.
But the passes from the powers that be on my fiction efforts continued, and each sent me into the tailspin of self-doubt. This work I had thought polished, wonderful, ready, and real—often, work which had opened a raw nerve in me as I wrote and revised it—did not strike these readers with any due force. It was not their judgment that leveled me so much as self-doubt: I thought the work was good, they didn’t, so how could I trust myself? How could I possibly be so blind, so wrong? Did I even know what was good? How can I call myself a writer if no one cares to read what I write, or is moved by it? How can I pretend to teach when I have nothing to share?
Then student evaluations from my first semester teaching after a three-year hiatus came back. The class gave me high marks for enthusiasm and apparent interest in my subject matter, but two felt they had not learned their strengths and weaknesses, and one felt s/he had not learned any new subject matter. Though they all agreed that they had taken away something, two of six marked me as “needs improvement” in two areas, and one wrote in the comments, unhelpfully, “change her teaching.” How? How could I have failed these students so entirely? What could I do differently? I did the math and my pass rates, for this class, was 75% – a solid C. Plays well with others, but not the smartest tool in the box. Demonstrates willingness, but not mastery.
And, despite being in the midst of another round of revisions that I had envisioned as the Great Pruning, the novel stubbornly refuses to subside beyond 188,000 words. I will never sell a novel that is 672 pages long, never, never, never. I thought of this first as an impasse, but now I think rather I have been toeing, for months and maybe years now, the edge of a great crevasse. I have found what I love—writing, teaching, talking with other writers—but I’m not particularly good at it. Fair, perhaps, and to some, pleasing. But not great. Not overwhelming. Not—as I was all through school, and college, and graduate school, and even in some small ways at my professoring—top of my class.
What I’m really good at, it appears, is going to school. At what I really want to do—write and publish—I’m just one in a sea of many, many pens, with nothing really to distinguish myself. My own individual stories, yes, my own individual voice, but there are so many more interesting people, so many more vivid imaginations out there. Who wants to read what I write? Why should they? Who needs me to be doing precisely this? Who needs me at all?
As I teetered on the precipice, though, a few small tendrils came out like a life line. Not enough to pull me back from the edge, perhaps, but enough to keep me from falling in. I met with a group of middle school students in the Quad Cities to help them write letters to the editor on subjects of their choice, and I was amazed at the passion, intelligence, enthusiasm, and sheer good-heartedness of each one of them. Many of them took revision advice better than my Comp I students, and some of them were better writers. All of them thought I was terrific. (Ego-stroking and praise clearly are a big part of what rewards I look for in my work. No wonder rejection sends me reeling.)
I doubt any of these students have suddenly discovered a great passion for writing, but they did the work, they were proud of what they accomplished, and all of us enjoyed our time talking together. I was struck by this group in part as a mom, seeing kids who had obviously been well-parented, from financially stable backgrounds, whose intellects and gentle hearts had been nurtured and their interests supported for all their young lives. It made me feel hopeful for the future, despite the bad news everywhere. But with them I also felt content in my work and reaffirmed in my own value. I have something to bring to the table after all, even if it is only as sounding board.
The other set of tendrils came from my Writing Center students. As I thought back to my various contacts there, and followed up informally with certain students to gather feedback for next semester, I was struck by how substantially I saw their writing improve, sometimes right before my eyes. Undoubtedly there was value there. The impact was small, concentrated, one-on-one, but powerful. I was doing some good work in the world, I could tell myself. I was earning my keep in that sense.
I was talking about writing, which I love. In each meeting I learn in new ways what makes writing powerful, what makes it work. And eventually I realized I was learning lessons that can help in my own writing. Get help. Stick with it. Talk to others. Keep learning. I long more than ever for an agent or an editor, or just a sharp personal reader who can go through my prose and find the things that need fixing. Find the parts of my novel that I can cut, the parts in my stories that need better characterization, tighter language, higher stakes. With the help of fresh eyes, perhaps even I can improve.
But what finally soothed my fretting as I woke night after night worrying about my Writing, my Purpose, my LIFE, was to realize, again and anew, what I want. And what I want—if that is any true guide—is to keep writing. Keep polishing. Figure it out. Experience the joy, the wonder, the wisdom, the sheer pleasure of watching these characters come alive with all their dramas and their weaknesses and their petty schemes. What I want is to keep writing, to come back to the page again and again and again, until I get it right.