Monday, February 6, 2012

Never Done

Last week I received fabulous news: my editor is happy with my latest revisions to the manuscript-in-progress, considers it “accepted” and is sending it off to copyediting, which means another pair of editorial eyes will look it over for grammar/typos/inconsistencies, etc. So while it’s not completely finished, it’s mostly finished. Thoughts have turned to covers, acknowledgements, book jacket copy … all the parts that spell: Done.

Prosecco was poured, cheers ensued, dancing about the office happened (which was very confusing to the dog) and this morning … I’m channeling Anne Bradstreet.

Here’s the thing: it’s never really done. Even when I spy one of my books on the shelves in a bookstore, I’m tempted to leaf through it with a pencil in hand and change a word or two. Or cross out an entire chapter. Or add an entire chapter.

And this latest book, in particular, unsettles me. I’m so not sure I’ve got it “right,” and when I pass it off to a reader I’m more anxious than usual. It’s as if I’ve sent my child out into a winter storm dressed only in her pajamas. I took some risks in this book. It scares me. I suspect it will never be ready.

Which is where the poet, Anne Bradstreet, comes in. Amazingly, this woman born in Northampton, England in 1612, who sailed with her husband and other Puritans on the Arabella in the 1630s and lived out the rest of her life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, tapped me on the shoulder this morning and said, “I know, right?”

Mother of eight, survivor of smallpox, a “Pilgrim,” to boot, she was also a writer, and one of her friends got hold of her poems and bundled them off to England, where, unbeknownst to her, they were published. She wasn’t … pleased. She felt they weren’t ready. They needed more work. And she wrote this poem about the experience of seeing her unreadied child exposed:

The Author to Her Book

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array, 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

I know, right?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Getting to Whoa

A dear friend just accomplished a remarkable thing. She finished writing her dissertation, an original, hundreds-of-pages long scholarly paper. It’s a work that’s taken more than two decades to complete, and an effort that spanned multiple jobs, the births of three children, the care of aged and ailing family members, and all the rest life throws at you.

When she was finally done and typed that last word (at least, I imagine her typing some last words … I need to ask her, did she actually write “The End”?) she posted on Facebook: Whoa.

Yes. That’s it. That’s the feeling and that’s the moment. Whoa.

It’s completely personal and solitary and surprising and exhilarating. The whoa, when you’ve given your last bit of effort to some creative endeavor, and finally seen it through to completion. It’s done, it represents the best you can do, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s published or well reviewed or applauded by anyone. It is a perfect thing in that moment, like reaching the top of K2 or holding a newborn. You stare down from a dizzying height and feel: whoa.

Getting to whoa is so hard. It’s not just the hours and the actual work you have to put in. It’s the distractions, all the Life that keep popping up and keeping you away from the desk or the studio. It’s the self doubt (“Who am I kidding? I can’t write/paint/sing/dance!") and it’s the mortgage (“I need a real job; screw the novel I’m going to law school.”) and it’s the nagging Why? that kills the whoa.

Why am I bothering to do this? Especially on days when the work doesn’t go well and I have nothing to show for it, wouldn’t I have been better off vacuuming the car? Tangible results and all that?

It takes a lot of courage to get to whoa, and to my friend I say: Yay for you! You are amazing.

But she’s not the only one.

I have a father who, at age 75, has finally given himself leave to pick up a paintbrush and create. He’s always loved art and he’s always had a gift, but he always had a million distractions and other responsibilities. Still, he never let go of his dream to paint, and these days, not for profit or praise but for himself, because he loves it, he creates wonderful landscapes. The painting at the beginning of this post is one of his.

I look at it and think: whoa.