On Taking Baths
One of my favorite stories–and my students have heard this many times–comes from the great writer and teacher Grace Paley, who I was lucky enough to know early in my writing life, and who was one of my greatest sources of encouragement when I was first starting out. Grace used to tell us–her students–that she wrote in the bathtub. The bathtub! For years, I had a mental picture of Grace, up to her shoulders in a sudsy claw foot tub, her cloud of gray hair piled high on top of her head, a notebook somehow in hand, scribbling away. As is true of much of Grace’s wisdom, it was many years before one day, I understood: she meant that she took baths. She stopped. She gave herself space, time, room to float.
We need to know how–and when–to stop. For some of us (I would certainly include myself in this group) this is not an easy thing to know. When I’m trying to start a piece of work, before it has fully come together, I often feel like I can’t leave it alone. I gnaw at it, turning it this way and that, moving words around, re-ordering sentences, playing with punctuation, when the big ideas haven’t begun to emerge yet. This is a bit like decorating a room in a house that hasn’t yet been built. Yes, I can make my sentences pretty. But whether they’ll add up is a different matter altogether. When I’m feeling this way–stuck on sentences, focused on the minutia–this is a really good time to take a bath. Or a walk. Or a drive. Or practice yoga. Or sit in meditation. Or cook a stew. Or whatever it is, for any of us, that allows our minds to stretch out. Whatever it is that allows us the inner peace from which ideas and images and characters spring.
For many of us (me!) this is hard. When we take our version of a bath, we feel guilty. Lazy. Like we’re doing something wrong. But it’s so important to remember that this isn’t a race we’re running. I just read somewhere yesterday that Jeff Eugenides, a wonderful guy and one of the great writers of my generation, has a new book coming out–his first since he published Middlesex nine years ago. Nine years! I have little doubt that there were times along the way that he beat himself up for being slow. For not writing more quickly. Likely, he worried that our culture’s attention span might not hold any space for him when he finally was ready. But I feel full of admiration for him. He didn’t succumb to impatience, or anxiety, or any of the scourges that plague most of us. This doesn’t mean he didn’t feel them. Let me be perfectly clear: all of us feel them, every single day. I don’t trust a well-adjusted, happy, confident writer. I mean, what the hell is that?
All we can do is run the hot water–whatever this means for each one of us–and remind ourselves that we’re not machines, that the imagination must be allowed time and space in order to flourish. And this never happens when we’re sitting in front of the page, brows furrowed, teeth gritted, anxiously determined to get it right.