So I went from full time to half time to all-the-time. From lots of people everyday to hardly any people any day. From interactions with people focused primarily on what some would call “spirituality” to interactions based on whatever happens to be flying around the human experience at the moment. From intense Biblical study to intense Civil War study and on into the psychology of memory, adult children of alcoholics, and racism. From being present in the moment with folks trudging into a church to being present in a thousand imagined moments with characters with potential lives trudging into my imagination. And the result of all this? From a solid sense of knowing you’re doing something significant because people tell you that pretty often, to wondering what in the world you’re up to, and whether it will make any difference.
Why shouldn’t life as its actually lived challenge your assumptions?
I’m reminded of Annie Dillard’s notion that to work on a novel (and in my case, a play) is to face down a beast that waits in your office every day. A lion, I think she called it. One of my students this past January called the process of creation “facing the white tiger.” Eric Maisel likens the long walk to the writing place to a hallway lined with demonic voices; you have to walk the gauntlet, telling them simply and sincerely to shut up. “Hush!” Clearing the mind, focusing attention, following lines of thought and character over an hour or eight. And at the end of the eight hours, maybe you’re holding something really fine, or maybe it’s nothing but a fistful of sand.
So what is the work?
It’s to show up. It’s to check in, clock in, sit down, stare at the page, at your notes, at your books, at your previous day’s writing. It’s imagining you’re on an airplane for a long ride, and you can’t up anyway, so you might as well dive in. It’s finding pace, acknowledging the deadlines without rushing past the detailed, nuanced thinking that has to inform the beats and the events. Characters must be listened to. I’m learning that to coerce them to do things they don’t want to do just because it would be fun to see them do it is to violate them and create lousy, false worlds. Makes me think of God watching us, wanting desperately to overthrow our sovereignty and make us to just what He wants us to, but I wonder: does He feel as badly about that as I do with my own characters?
What is the work?
To keep going, to learn humanity, to see what’s inside us, what’s working on us, to resist that ever-present thought that you know much. I walk the neighborhood many mornings, seeing those same old colors, same old flowers. I know where the tulips are, where the poppies are, where the rhodies are. Truth is, they’re as spectacular as ever, and it’s a temptation to think I’ve seen them already. It’s the same with people. How in the world to stay alive to each one’s mystery and fascination? Who knows what we will really do when we’re standing in our life’s defining moment. There’s so much comedy and drama in the world…no wonder we tell stories.
The work is the cultivation of faith through beads-of-sweat living. Standing firm when your chin shakes and your chest is tight and tears sit in the edges of your eyes, and you plow on, working, pushing back on the curses that stretch all the way back to the garden. And the wave of panic passes, and you clickity-clack away on the keyboard. And then there are words that fit just right, story events that become obvious, and characters leap off the page, anxious to get what they’re after. Their beauty is their honesty, their brokenness, and their humanity. Such is your beauty as well. And mine.
The work is to lay down pride. You know the kind of pride I mean. The kind of pride that destroys listening, blocks sight, removes presence, and makes getting through a day as hard as swimming in armor. Pride that presents itself as fear that you will never breathe the air of God, because it’s an air that is only attained with achievement, popular acclaim, and fawning. If we’re lucky, the work shows us (dramatically) how dumb we really are, and that the air of God can be had for a simple inhale, and categorically has nothing to do with all that other stuff. To hear any of that, though, we have to be ready, open handed, receptive to being worked over.
What is the work?
Let’s say the work is a Jesus kind of thing; get up from the comfort table, take off the outer garment, wrap the towel around your waist, and offer cleansing, relief, comfort, rest, hospitality, even if it means having a sore back a lot. And you artists out there? Things in the imaginative world aren’t much different that that of the real world. The work is to wash the feet, imagined and real, of all who come onto our kingdom plot of ground.
Time for words…
2 Replies to “Learning to Work on Your Work”
You have just written the job description for every person who wants to make art – with words, with talent, with life. Bravo.
Thanks, Emily. “Chatting at the Sky.” Love it. Keep writing. And thanks for stopping by…