Dani Shapiro
October 17, 2011

On Pressing to the Center

This morning, at a loss, I stretched out on the new chaise lounge I bought for my office–the chaise lounge I decided, when I first saw it in a local shop, would change my writing and reading life, and flipped open my copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Writing Diary.  This never fails me.  When I remember to do it, it always sets my day straight.  Randomly opening it to a page, I read:

“My bread bakes well.  All is rather rapt, simple, quick, effective–except for my blundering on at The Waves.   I write two pages of arrant nonsense, after straining; I write variations of every sentence; compromises; bad shots; possibilities; till my writing book is like a lunatic’s dream.  Then I trust to some inspiration on re-reading;  and pencil them into some sense.  Still I am not satisfied.  I think there is something lacking.  I sacrifice nothing to seemliness.  I press to my center.”

How many lessons there are to be learned in this one brief paragraph!  First, the revelation that Woolf felt she was blundering as she was writing one of her masterpieces.  That we all feel we blunder.  We are failing at every moment to get it right.  The chasm between the perfect work that exists in our imagination and the chicken scratches on the page can be too much to bear.  Still, we write.  Woolf wrote through bad shots, compromises.  She was willing to put her lunatic’s dream down on paper.  Then, the shaping, the penciling into some sense.  Still–and of course!–she is dissatisfied.  Something’s missing.  Something’s wrong.  She stays longer, doesn’t polish it into prettiness, but instead, presses deeper, ever closer to the center, to the place where it’s pulsing, tiny, alive.

I don’t know about you, but I need to learn these lessons again and again.  I lose sight of how hard it is for all of us, and assume that it’s just hard for me.  I wake up with my mind ironed clean, the best of intentions, but within moments of my feet hitting the floor, already I’ve begun to fret.  The dog left a stain on the carpet.   I need to schedule a doctor’s appointment.  Those expenses for a recent business trip need to be turned in.  My in box is full of chores.  Letters to be written.  Why not do them now?  The chores are real, but they can also be done later.  They’re a hedge against the true work at hand.  My job, the one that I have done for better or worse for the past twenty years, does not involve the dog stain, doctor’s appointment, expenses, letters.  My real job involves pressing to the center.  It’s hard, and painful, and god there is always something to distract us, something easier to do.  (Baking bread, perhaps?) Writing well involves walking the path of most resistance. Sitting still, being patient, allowing the lunatic dream to take shape on the page, then the shaping, the pencil on the page, breathing, slowing down, being willing–no, more than willing, being wide open–to press the bruise until it blossoms.