On Art and Life

I’ve spent a lot of time, more than I wish, thinking about shoulds and what ifs.  Oh, how I wish I could have back all the hours I’ve mused or worried (or panicked) about things that either a) are pointless self-flagellation, or b) uncontrollable.

In the should department, I’ve worried that I should be doing better in virtually every area of my life.  I should spend more time working.  I should be better at what I do.  I should spend more time with my son.  I should spend more time with my husband.  I should cook more.  I should do more yoga.  I should meditate more.  I should re-do the living room.  I should spend more time with my friends.  I should take up a hobby.  Like knitting.  I should knit.

Well, this is funny, even to me.  Because notice how each should cancels out the next.  There aren’t enough hours in the day.  These shoulds do nothing but make me feel scattered, paralyzed, unworthy.

Let’s move on to the what ifs.  These are the biggies, of course.  What if something terrible happens to someone I love?  What if I get sick?  What if we have no money?  What if I lose my mind and can’t write any more?

This is less funny.  Because the truth of life is that something terrible will happen to someone I love.  The phone will ring and it will be bad news.  At some point.  I will get sick.  At some point.  To love is to risk heartache.  To live is to withstand loss.  At some point, we all suffer.

I’m well aware that there are people who walk around not thinking about any of this.  Usually these are people with regular jobs that don’t involve sitting around in ratty yoga clothes or (truth) a bathrobe in the middle of the day, staring at the walls, or pacing the floor.  John Updike called writing “the subtlest instrument for self-examination known to man.”  That self-examination, combined with the capacity and willingness to witness the world around us, is not a comfortable place to be.  We writers often feel raw and exposed, out-of-step.  I myself am often struck mute – as if I can only figure out what the hell I want to say when I’m in the process of putting pen to paper.  This isn’t a choice – its a way of being.  Nobody becomes a writer who doesn’t have to.

If we are our only instrument – as of course, we are – how do we navigate this business of living our lives, quieting the shoulds and what ifs, and finding that inward space in which we’re able to find that truth, as Thoreau wrote, that strikes us from behind and in the dark?

I’m going to suggest something radical here – something that is much easier said than done.  We must not separate our life from our art.  Louise Gluck recently spoke of this in an interview with William Giraldi in Poets & Writers:  “You have to live your life if you’re going to do original work.  Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.”

I’m often asked about motherhood and writing.  About teaching and writing.  About making a living and writing.  Beneath all of the questions is a deeper question, thrumming: Can I have a life and be a writer? 

I’d like to answer a resounding yes to that question, though with the caveat that this requires a daily practice, a daily awareness that perhaps we need not delineate between life and art, draw a line down the center of our days and put our work on one side and everything else on the other.  Sarah Ruhl offers this:  “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life.  And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion.  At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.  And life, by definition, is not an intrusion.”

And so, my friends, embrace the snow day, the traffic jam.  Embrace the flu.  Say thank you to the midday school conference, the vet appointment, the plumber, the memorial service.  As I said, easier said than done.  But it helps to remember that every single moment you wholeheartedly experience becomes part of your instrument, part of what you know.