During my long office hours at week's end, at last, a customer. Maria comes in, out of breath. She says she can't write. She thinks she has to drop the class. She hands me a sheet of paper, a list of lines written in pencil. Her eyes are wet — she's about to cry; she's been crying. "I just can't get the structure. And it takes me so long! This took 20 minutes."
She collapses into my comfy chair.
"Twenty minutes?" I say, as gently as I can. "That seemed like a long time?"
She doesn't burst into tears so much as slip down, fold over, fall apart.
÷ ÷ ÷
Creating isn't about inspiration or spilling your guts. Creating isn't about being wildly free. Creating isn't tortured, isn't genius, isn't mystical. When it comes to writing, creating is actually a lot more like woodworking or farming or making a beautiful piece of jewelry. It takes extraordinary focus, attention, and acres of time.
But the most important thing isn't any of those.
"Maria," I say. "What are you writing about?"
She looks at me, blankly. "I'm not even sure."
"That's good," I say.
"No, it is. It's good to not know. This whole thing — it's an exercise in making friends with not-knowing." I smile, cheerleading. "Let yourself not-know for longer."
If there's a secret — to writing, to teaching writing — it's this. We practice tolerating repeated failure. Try to get to the place where you can actually welcome failure — tiny and then, later, drastic — and become friends.
Very difficult to do!
The monster that is failure seems like a poor candidate for friendship. It's counterintuitive: "Befriend slime mold!" It sounds completely un-fun and un-helpful. But it's the only way, I believe, to grow as a writer. As a person: make friends with the loathed parts of you. The worst parts, all the wrong parts.
÷ ÷ ÷
I know a lot about being very wrong — I have a rare neurological disorder that has forced me to become an expert on wrongness. I navigate the world clumsily, constantly overwhelmed and failing, missing what's right in front of my face. My disorder has provided the most useful training for my writing life, more useful than any shelf of craft books, for sure. Would I have become a writer without it? I'm not sure I would have been able to master the requisite comfort with chaos.
I'm face blind: I can't recognize people by face. I recognize people, all the time —by hair, outline, gait, context, voice, or by how they know me. So, the tall skinny man coming up to me in my house, wearing my husband's misshapen maroon sweater, it's gotta be my husband. But the man out in my backyard, later that day, in coveralls I've never seen before — well, I called the police.
Which was startling for my husband.
Which made me feel an old familiar shame mixed with loss and sadness.
How can I be so wrong? All the time! It's a terrible feeling, an impossible way to live. I don't recognize myself in shop windows or photographs. I regularly walk past my closest friends, my stepkids, the chair of my department. My students, even in class, appear to me as strangers, as — each day — brand new.
My husband and I ended up divorced. For all kinds of reasons, most of which have to do, of course, with being wrong and not knowing very much about failure.
÷ ÷ ÷
I've had the disorder as long as I can remember. In kindergarten, I simply couldn't tell the other children apart. At recess I couldn't find my teacher, unless I'd paid close attention to her dress and shoes that morning. I stood alone, working overtime to sort people into categories: the blondie girls, the redhead boys, the kids whose dark hair I associated with crow feathers.
Once, Betsy H. (there were three blonde Betsys, confusing for everyone no doubt) asked me to play House. I suspect the kindergarten teacher leaned on her for the invitation.
"You'll be the new baby," Betsy H. said. I nodded solemnly, shaking inside. I would be an unwanted child, an orphan, a stray.
And immediately I was a disaster at House. I couldn't find my Mother. I wasn't sure who was Brother, Father, or Dog. My failure to know the obvious, to register anything at all in the way of recognition, disrupted the Family. The other kids began to drift away.
Good intentions notwithstanding, Betsy had to make a move. Desperate times call for desperate measures. "That new baby died," she announced to the others. "And it's time for our dinner now. Get into the kitchen!"
I fled, dead, for the faceless safety of the distant wall.
÷ ÷ ÷
Of course I became a writer. It's a profession that requires you to know failure, to sink deeply into pain, discomfort, and not-knowing, trusting you will come out with something. It's a job where you must, more than anything, trust that on all the days you don't come out with anything at all — nothing written, nothing observed, just another mess, another chaos — that those days count for something too. That those not-knowing days are actually worth more than the clear days.
(In this way, the artist's life is like both childhood and faith.)
÷ ÷ ÷
In my office, Maria took notes. What do you like to look at? I asked her. Boys? Nature? Dessert? To begin, you hold something in your hand, something that takes up more room in your heart than your unknowns. Something small, something alive. You hold it, and you look at it. For a long time. You drown out the demons I don't know I don't know, you're wrong, wrong with simple close looking.
Can you go to the park, I asked her, and sit for an hour today? Maybe just 10 minutes this first time. Just sit. Write down everything you hear. Everything — every tiny thing you see.
"That would count?" Maria said.
It's all that counts.
You can't know writing. You can know grass, with sticks on it, and a soccer ball, cracked with use and cheapness and age, forgotten on the edge of the field. You can know that. Poetry and story comes only this way, in the swirling mix of unknown and known, of close-looking and chaos.
Try to extend your ability to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing, I told her. Cultivate that state, even if for just one minute more each day.
That's the secret.
She closed her eyes.
Which I took as a sign, a good sign.
Closing your eyes is the first step to opening them.
÷ ÷ ÷
I remember watching my stepsons play Guitar Hero. They started a game, lost quickly. They started a new game, right away. They played over and over — losing, losing, losing — until they won. Then the game was over. So winning wasn't the point, it was the end.
Failure — learning — that was what was interesting.
If I have one talent as a writer and teacher, it's my fearlessness in the face of failure.
At the grocery store last night, I wondered about the friendly elderly couple talking to me in the checkout line — how did I know them? Failure, failure, my brain blinked.
Then the woman thanked me for watering their plants.
"Oh, hello!" (My next door neighbors!)
÷ ÷ ÷
A couple weeks later, Maria — face scrubbed, honey hair in a tight bouncy ponytail — flounced down into the comfy chair in my office, beaming. She handed me a series of five poems, beautifully typed and formatted. The poems were about the boys she had loved. In each poem, she was in a different landscape with a different boy, nature and Eros entwined.
I had her read them to me aloud, one by one. The images shimmered. Her voice broke. I forgot we were in my office, on campus, in Michigan. I forgot who we were, teacher and student.
"Oh my gosh, Maria."
She covered her mouth, and we laughed. We laughed with joy, the laughter christening this beautiful thing Maria made, made out of a mess and tears and close-looking and love and luck and not-knowing.
This is what I know.
Stay with the thing that makes no sense and isn't clear. Stay with it, no matter how hard it is. Stay, and — once in awhile, and you never know when or how — something may come shining through. And you can hold that. And know a bit.