I am writing to you from the top of my own personal water tower. Right now.
Here’s a picture of it.
I was lucky enough to get into the residency program at the Anderson Center (which you should all apply for, by the way), which means that I’ve been whisked into some kind of impossible wonderland where artists are treated like gods and given an entire month to do whatever they want. Today, for instance, I woke up without an alarm (because seriously, who needs that bullshit) and went for a run through the sculpture garden to the Cannon River, where I saw bald eagles, goldfinches, turtles, and probably unicorns. Along the way, I stumbled across an abandoned gravel pit, so I explored that for a while and came out with a fist full of agates and three copper-plated bullets, which this city mouse found absolutely fascinating. Then I jogged back, ate the food left by our personal chef in the mansion that is somehow my residence, luxuriated in the shower, and then literally ascended into my writing tower, where I come every day to work on my novel. Light spills in from every direction as I look out over the river valley, as well as nearby Highway 61, which I may have the staff blockade for the remainder of my stay, as it displeases me. I may have that power. Who knows?
After weeks in this fairy tale, where someone actually warns me of anything that might disturb my artistic trance (“Raking today. Sorry about that!”), where someone cooks for me and cleans for me, where all quotidian roadblocks between me and Transcendent Genius™ have been removed, the writing should be going great, right?
Unfortunately, the answer is no. It’s not. I’m not in total crisis—the dilithium crystals haven’t fractured, nor has Voldemort taken up residence in the back of my head (though that would be a sweet excuse)—I just haven’t written nearly as much as I’d hoped, and in the context of this unique gift of time, that feels sort of bad.
There’s a journal in my room that past residents have filled with entries, many of which chronicle mountain-top experiences, from which they descended with tablets of air and fire, their hair permanently windblown. But there are also entries missing. Residents who, for whatever reason, chose to remain silent. I wonder if they had months like the one I’m having, months plagued by frustration, anxiety, and doubt. Months of anemic output and disappointed expectations. When the words are flowing, the tower is paradise. When they’re not, it’s like being locked in a closet with a dragon. And this month, friends, the words have not been flowing. I have the burns to prove it.
In writing, everyone likes to talk about the good stuff. “I sold the book!” “I won the Triple Newbery!” “My agent invented time travel and sent a copy of my book on the Voyager I spacecraft!” This is as it should be. Good stuff feels good. Hard work and time-traveling agents deserve recognition. However, the danger in everyone else’s good stuff is that it can fool you into thinking that bad stuff doesn’t exist, or that it only exists for you. Unchecked, you can develop a wicked case of impostor syndrome
, assuming that everyone else has it together and that one day you’ll be unmasked for the fraud you truly are.
But you know what? Everyone feels that way. Hayao Miyazaki, the most celebrated animator in the world, can’t even bear to watch his own movies because he fixates on the mistakes. Kate DiCamillo, when asked if writing gets easier after you win a slew of awards, just shook her head. “No,” she said. “It gets harder.” We are all storms with smiles on. We just don’t like to talk about it.
Did you watch the TEDx talk that inspired Jane’s brilliant post
the other day? If not, watch it now
. It’s about grammar and Vietnam, and it is absolutely worth your time. Really, I’ll wait.
(Makes arbitrary pronouncements from tower to kill time.)
Back? Great. I bring it up because I realized something when I watched that video: I’ve been spending weeks in the
subjunctive. Up in my tower, I’ve obsessed over the possible world in which I was crushing it with this revision, rather than being crushed by it. The further those two worlds diverged, the harder writing in the real one became.
In her critical thesis lecture, The Way to the Chair: Zen and the Practice of Writing, Mandy Davis said this: “In writing, there is no place to reach. No perfection to achieve. There is only writing to be done and effort to be made, moment after moment.” Writing is hard, friends. And, when you shoulder up a big ol’ bag of expectations, it can be damn near impossible.
Writers are eager to forgive everyone but themselves. Practice. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle. As Jane says, “Be as kind to yourself as you would a close friend.” Sit down, embrace the work as it is, and go from there. Remember, the perfect world doesn’t have the burden of actually existing. Your progress in the real one, however slow, dwarfs anything that’s happening in the imaginary fields of perfection.
Peter Pearson graduated from the MFAC program in 2012. His first picture book, How to Eat an Airplane, comes out from Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in 2015.
Beautiful and well-said, Peter. I feel like this is a lesson I keep learning.
Also, "Triple Newbery"! It's the Triple Lindy of the literary world, right?
Or the Triple Crown? Except the same crown over and over?
Thank you for reminding me that I'm not the only who is chased by the guilt gremlin.
You're welcome. The guilt gremlins pursue us all in equal measure.
Oh Peter, you describe it exactly! I've also been on a residential retreat (done two weeks, have another two weeks in late August) and like you, I expected the magic of being there to inspire a torrent of words. Every day was a struggle. The only thing that kept me feeling OK (and not a fraud) was to keep a writing diary of every word I wrote. That made me persevere but also bolstered me up. In the end I realised the best part of it was the time to daydream and stare out the window without feeling guilty!
Exactly. I keep hoping there's some kind of magic out there, only to realize that the only real magic is the kind we create ourselves through tenacity and self-forgiveness.
Thank you, Peter. You've coaxed me from the tower's open window and made me come to my senses or my computer might have landed on someone's head. Timing is everything. Your words are especially valuable today. I think I'll stop nagging my story, pretend I don't care, and let it come crawling back to me when it's ready.
Every computer (and writer) that remains undefenestrated is a victory.
Well said, Peter. I warned you about being an artist. But did you listen? Yes. And then you did it anyway. If you fall out of that water tower and break your leg, don't come running to me …
I remember you told me once, "Son, if you become an artist, you won't be rich. But you will have a rich life." Seems about right. Thanks, Pa.