On Productive Despair

It’s a beautiful day in New England. A cloudless sky, a rustling summer breeze that carries with it just the barest hint of autumn.  My guys are downstairs reading (Michael’s reading The Year of Magical Thinking and Jacob’s reading All the Light We Cannot See) and I am taking a few minutes to relish the quiet, the early morning, my family together under one roof. In a little while, we will drive five minutes away to do yoga in a barn at an organic farm with friends and members of this community where we have lived for the past fifteen years.  Life — today — I recognize, at this very moment, is beautiful.

And yet. (You knew the “yet” was coming, didn’t you?)

I am a writer trying to tell a story that is banging on my rib cage, coursing through my bloodstream, haunting my dreams.  I didn’t choose this story. This story chose me.  It’s the story that makes sense of all of my other stories, everything that has come before.  It sheds light on both the past as I’ve always understood it, and the future as I step into it.  I’ve been writing it for the past year, in corners, in stolen hours, in swaths of time I have carved out for it.  I spent all of last fall and winter sitting in a big leather chair in my library staring out the window at the meadows behind my house, tears standing still in my eyes, a growing pile of index cards on the table next to me. 

And then I went on tour for Hourglass and spent two months on the road, not thinking about it.  I couldn’t think about it and take care of the delicate little book I love so much (if it’s okay for a writer to love her own book, I love Hourglass, I really do).  And when I returned home after twenty-six cities, what I discovered was that my new manuscript needs me to take a pickaxe to it.  It needs to be broken up — as I have been broken up — and put together in a different way, a new way.  It needs — that most daunting and scary thing for a writer — to be restructured.  Reconsidered.  Rethought.  Reimagined.  I had been too close to it.  The time away was a gift. And now I have the half-step backward, the capacity for perspective that I had previously lacked.

I tell students all the time that there is a kind of despair we feel as writers and artists that is not only useful, but necessary.  It’s the second-to-the-last fathom, the murky, dark waters an artist must move through before reaching the very bottom, the place from which she can use all her strength and push up, up, up toward the surface.  There’s light up there, but first we have to live in the depths. 

“I’m in completely despair,” I told my husband earlier this week. “But I know it’s productive despair.”  Knowing this doesn’t change the feeling. Having been here before doesn’t help, not really. All the knowledge in the world is useless to the writer who must, simply must endure the difficulty and recognize that beyond the hopeless lies the only possibility for a powerful work of art.