“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
I must admit; I came back to the page primarily to work out my feelings about my legacy as a writer/editor and the worth of the content I’ve left behind. In my previous incarnation as a magazine editor, I cared quite a bit about the quality of my work, a preoccupation that was painful at times; particularly when my definition of “good” crashed headlong into the wall of expectations and bottom-lines maintained by the folks who signed my paychecks. I honored my responsibility to my audience, felt I owed my readers the very best that I could create (with a humbling understanding that my “very best” might not always hit the bull’s-eye), and thus belabored over phrases and worried about citations and constructing readily understandable (and occasionally remarkable) prose.
Now that I’ve moved on, it’s hard not to feel as if all that craft and consideration was for naught. What I left behind has been renamed and reclassified and reconfigured to the point where it only vaguely resembles what I worked so hard to craft and fortify. I understand that we must mark out our own spaces, even those places we inherited from someone else. I didn’t expect a clone to step into my shoes, particularly in light of their tight fit and the blisters they continually raised upon my psyche.
Nevertheless, whenever I happen upon the new incarnation of what I initiated almost a decade ago, I cannot escape the bitter taste in my mouth as I wonder, “if this is the dreck they wanted all along, why did I care so much in the first place?”
We care, I suspect, because if we self-identify as “writers” (or artists of any stripe), we are essentially admitting we are in love – that our creative endeavors have taken hold of our heart. We value our relationship to the pen, the canvas, the camera or the sketchpad. We lose hours and days and weeks as we tumble in the metaphorical bedsheets with our muse. We have met our soulmate, and so we care, care tremendously, about our legacy and the work to which we sign our name.
As Daniel Swensen explains in his blog post “Dabbler or Disciple: How Serious Are You About Writing?”, “Those who want to be a writer experience the Writing Life as an unquenchable fever in their soul.”
“If we are passionate about writing, if our hearts pump ink and the scent of paper causes us to tremble,” writes Swensen, “we will make room for writing with nary a thought to logistics.
Remember what those first few weeks of ‘being in love’ feel like? You don’t need to eat. You don’t need to sleep. You have all the time in the world to bask in the presence of your lover because you make the time.”
“Just as creative talent makes room for itself,” concludes Swensen, “passion makes time to pursue the lover.”
Reading Swensen’s blog, I realized I’d focused so much energy on what I’d left behind, I’d abandoned my commitment to daily writing. Peeking over my shoulder, forever looking at my shadow and retreating footsteps, I’d wandered off my path.
“Truth is, the Writing Life doesn’t want to be penciled in,” warns Swensen. “It wants to screw up your schedule without any resistance on your part. It demands your slavish devotion. You want to be a writer? Cancel your gym membership. Give up your favorite tv show. Beg out of dinner dates.”
I must admit; I’m guilty of losing hours in the living room, streaming House of Cards on Netflix or rewatching old episodes of Game of Thrones. I’ve skipped out on an afternoon I could’ve spent comfortably ensconced in my writer’s nook upon the flimsiest of invitations – to accompany a friend to the store, to buy a new lampshade, to put air in my constantly leaky tire.
In The Artists Way, Julia Cameron talks a lot about “filling up the well.” Certainly some aimless activity is an integral part of the creative process. Long walks on the beach, highly focused episodes of crafting or cleaning, gardening in the backyard or sneaking out to a matinee – these are important activities (particularly when you’re feeling blocked and uninspired). But what Swensen describes holds true – sometimes aimlessness leads to inattention, which is only a hop-skip-jump away from total abandonment.
If Swensen’s right – and I don’t doubt he is – then it’s time to work on reconciliation, and the process will be painful.
“Forget about open arms, tender reunions and mind-blowing make-up sex,” cautions Swensen. “It isn’t that easy to rekindle the romance.”
“I’m speaking from experience here,” he continues. “The Writing Life and I split up a few years back. Got pretty messy. Things were said. Feelings hurt. Vows made. Just about the darkest period of my history. And trust me, reuniting was no picnic. Took a couple years to get our mojo back. I had to put in a lot of late nights and write hundreds of thousands of words of crap before we were able to effectively communicate again.”
Getting to the page today was not easy – especially with suspicion crouching on my shoulder whispering “none of it every really matters” soothingly into my ear. If what I’ve written can be washed out by the tides, what’s the point?
The point, my friends, is that you can never really stop being a writer. It’s less about the end game and more about the desire that can never be fully quenched. It’s about that need that inevitably resurfaces, even when you thought you and writing were done for good. In the past I’ve struggled to cultivate a sense of finality when it comes to romantic relationships (the break-ups and the make-ups repeating and regurgitating until fate or mother nature or a stronger passion finally step in), I don’t know why I’ve ever doubted I’d reunite with my writing.
Swensen admits that as he reached the most fallow epoch of his writing life, he achieved a kind of clarity about his aspirations and life’s purpose.
“That’s when I realized that I didn’t just want to write I wanted to be a writer. I was smitten with the written word. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write.”
Sometimes reconnecting with a passion that’s fizzled can raise up a blaze stronger than any previous bonfire – an inferno to light up the night sky and put the stars to shame. It can happen in our romantic relationships, and it can happen with rekindled creativity as well.
The first step, as always, is to prioritize.
As Swensen advises, “Until you move the Writing Life from your To Do List to your Can’t Wait To Do List, you won’t be able to bridge the gap between wanting to be and being.”
In “What You Leave Behind,” Swensen addresses creative legacies and the need to carve out space for your artistic endeavors, “To be successful — to really excel — you’ve got to make room. A whole lot of room. And, unfortunately, it’s probably going to hurt.”
“I’m convinced that the key to the Creative Life™ — if we are to capitalize it so breathlessly — is this: The Creative Life is less about what you take with you than what you leave behind…
Because it’s entirely possible for you to die with your life’s work to go undone, if you are careless. And, if you don’t let that thought terrify you into paralysis, the knowledge can be a hell of a motivator.”
I’ll leave you with the words of Ray Bradbury. From Fahrenheit 451
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do; he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”