“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
I copied these words, from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, into an otherwise blank notebook about a year ago. The notebook had been blank for quite a while. It was a beautiful, perfect notebook – I had ordered it online after coveting one that a student was using – and I planned for it to be the notebook in which I would begin My Next Book. I didn’t yet know what My Next Book would be. I was on book tour for Still Writing, and traveling a great deal to speak to audiences of writers all over the country. I carried the notebook with me everywhere. The notebook went to Europe. It went to LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, D.C., and New York. I didn’t write a word in it, and I became more and more anxious. Panic began to weave a web around me that kept me isolated from my own internal life. I would get up and give keynotes that inspired writers to get to work – but I wasn’t working, because I didn’t know what I was doing, and if I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t do it.
I had lost all sense of playfulness. Of messiness. Of curiosity. That feeling of discovery that happens when the writer follows the line of words – I had forgotten all about that. If I was going to deface the notebook, if I was going to begin, whatever I wrote – that first sentence – had to be perfect. It had to be a sentence to end all sentences. And so the notebook continued to be blank until a day came when finally, my own despair trumped my lunatic perfectionism.
I doodled a daisy. Literally, a daisy. Like the kind of doodles I used to make when I was six years old. And then I ripped that page out of the no-longer-pristine notebook. After which I wrote Meno’s words.
Getting lost is both the plight and the joy of the artist. David Salle once said in an interview: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.” And so I began to get lost. I spent much of the next year on a journey of missteps and wrong turns, all of which I had to make to get to that place of the real work beginning. I have to say, too, that this getting lost cannot be faked. We cannot pretend to be lost. We cannot be quasi-lost. In order to possibly find that way out – in order to discover that thing previously unknown to us – we walk through the pitch-black darkness. We feel our hands against cave walls. We slip and fall. We bruise ourselves, blind to our own path. And maybe we don’t find our way out. But maybe we do.
I’m just back home from two glorious weeks at Hedgebrook. If there’s a heaven for women writers, I imagine it looks exactly like this:
Buoyed by the presence of six remarkable women, I awoke each morning, built a roaring fire in the wood stove, made a big pot of coffee, and got down to the work of feeling my way through the darkness. Alone my cottage, my next book began to reveal itself to me. It didn’t not ask of me that it be perfect. It did not ask of me that I understand it. It asked only that I attend to it. Slowly, softly, with fortitude. Get lost inside of me, it seemed to whisper. It is the only way.