On What it Takes
A number of years ago, I was seated next to a literary agent — not my own — at a dinner party. At some point during our conversation, she asked every writer’s favorite question: what are you working on? As it happened, I had recently begun working on a memoir. No one was more surprised by this development than I. My previous two books had been novels, and I had been waiting for the next novel to materialize, as a glimmer, a glimpse of something urgent in my imagination. But that hadn’t happened. What happened was this word, D-E-V-O-T-I-O-N, literally spelled out in front of me one day as I practiced yoga. I knew what it meant, and I wasn’t at all happy about it. I hadn’t planned to ever write a second memoir. I was a novelist. A serious novelist. The thought of writing another memoir — much less a spiritual memoir — was not what I had in mind.
The agent sat back in her chair and looked stricken, as if somehow my news affected her personally.
“But you can’t! You’re getting such great attention for your novels. You’ll lose your readers if you turn to memoir.”
The agent went so far as to call one of the editors who was interested in my new book to tell her she thought I — along with my actual agent — was making a mistake.
This stayed with me, haunted me, while I wrote Devotion. A writer in the midst of a book is nothing if not suggestible. But I had no choice. The book had chosen me. It had tapped me firmly on the shoulder, wedged its way into my consciousness, demanding my attention. The years I spent writing Devotion, I wondered if I was indeed making a mistake. Who was going to care about my idiosyncratic, complex, singular spiritual journey? What’s more, the book’s structure was also worrisome when it revealed itself. The book seemed to want to be written in small, almost puzzle-like pieces. I had always written in long, narrative sweeps. What the hell was this? I felt like my head was exploding. I felt doomed to write a book no one would read, told in fragmentary prose poems.
When Devotion eventually was published, it turned out that my fears – along with my dinner companion’s dismay – had been unfounded. The puzzle-like structure worked. Readers from all kinds of backgrounds responded to the story. That book and its reception in the world changed my life – not in a yippie-I-can-renovate-my-house kind of way, but in a much deeper way. It brought me to an abiding, powerful understanding of the way we human beings –once we dig beneath our protective shells – are more similar than different. The same worries keep us up at night. The same fears and insecurities drive us.
Just this past weekend, in a workshop, I was discussing some manuscript pages of one of my students – a lovely writer who has been working on a memoir for the past ten years – and I wasn’t telling her what she wanted to hear. What she wanted to hear was, of course, what we all want to hear, which is: this is magnificent, and your work here is done. After all, she had been working on the manuscript for ten years. She had poured everything she had into it. But her work wasn’t done. And as we began to talk about it, she told us she was trying not to cry.
And what I said in response was perhaps not the most teacherly thing I have ever said: I cry every day.
My students stared at me. Many of them have been with me for years – some, for decades. They had never heard me say anything like this before. But it was true, and I always try to tell the truth. Especially about writing, because, let’s face it, the writing life is hard. It’s solitary, often thankless, painful to the point of near-madness. It can look, from a distance, especially on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, like the writing life involves days bracketed by beautiful cups of cappuccino in the morning, perfect glasses of Priorat at night. It can look like conferences in fabulous, far-flung places, writers gaily cavorting at festivals wearing cute clothes. But the truth is a wee bit darker. The truth is that writers, if I may generalize, are sensitive, impatient, fearful people, sifting through the sands of the every day, panning for gold. We never know what’s next. The next book, the next sentence, the next word all reveal themselves to us in their own time, with their own peculiar alchemy.
If I had held on to my flimsy self-identity – I’m a novelist – I wouldn’t have written Devotion. If I’d held onto the pages I was working on a couple of years ago, ones that weren’t working, I wouldn’t have written Still Writing. And now, as I sit here on the chaise on a gloomy day, my eyes still bleary with sleep, the weight of my new work pressing against me from all sides, the questions lining up, the old terror, my inner censor screaming no, no, no, not this, you can’t, you mustn’t, I find I have less and less patience for impatience — from others, from myself. This is the way it is, to try to make something out of nothing. This is the price of admission. This is what it is, to press against the bruise — I am pressing now — with no reward other than the doing, and the hope that bruise will bloom.