Right around New Year’s, when the world seems replete with actionable plans – you know, seven steps to greater happiness, ten steps to a new you, and so forth – I found myself musing about whether there are indeed identifiable steps, or any steps at all, that lead to the creation of a new piece of work. Are there steps that lead the writer to the page? Steps that we can take, teetering one after the next, that will somehow get us into that longed-for state of the page rising up, the world receding?
I’m sorry to say that after all my musing I was unable to come up with a game plan, for myself or anyone else. Honestly, I never really thought I would, because every writer’s path to the page is unique and fraught in its own special way. However, I did land on one idea, which has to do with the second to the last step – the penultimate step – to beginning a new piece of work.
Are you ready for it?
Yes, you read that right. I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve had quite a lot of it at this point, and what I can identify in my own process, when I am between books, it that I have to reach a total nadir, a writhing-on-the-floor, no holds barred, messy, deeply uncomfortable, godawful, pressured, horrible state before I can begin. No, I’ll take that further. It is precisely the depths themselves that act as a launching point. When I find myself – finally, inexorably – trapped in that impossible place, I am finally liberated. Liberated from my perfectionism, my resistance, my inner censor. Liberated from my fear, my self-consciousness, my ambition, my desire. All that’s left, in my despair, is an empty husk. And from that empty husk issues forth this question:
What do you have to lose?
When we land in the place beyond fear which is, if you’ll excuse me, a fuck-it-all place where courage is beside the point, this is the final step that hurls us at the page. A dear friend, a wonderful writer whose father is also an eminent writer – a national treasure – told me that when she was a child, her father used to drive her to school during the years in which he was wrestling with what later became his magnum opus. On some mornings, he’d pull the car over to the side of the road and she’d watch as he’d bash his head against the steering wheel. I asked her if it felt scary, and she told me it didn’t. It was just her dad, trying to get to work. I know the feeling of that pressure building up. Bash, bash, bash! I’ve certainly screamed in my car at the top of my lungs – though I’ve managed never to do it in front of my son. A writer in that state of struggle is a bit mad. My head sometimes feels like an overripe melon, rotting, ready to explode.
But here’s the thing: there seems to be no other way. We don’t choose this life. This life chooses us. And so from the ocean floor of that despair, we tense our legs, we spring from our haunches, we squeeze our eyes shut and scissor up through the depths with all our might. We don’t think about whether we have enough time or oxygen. We hope there’s light above us. We break through the surface, gasping. We’ve survived the worst part. From the deepest recesses of where we have found ourselves, we have begun.