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"Advanced Directive to My Future Roommate…"

"Things Gone the Way of Time," recently reprinted in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton)

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Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot

On Fear, Rejection, and Persistence in the Writing Life (Part 2)

Excerpted from One Word Deep: Lectures and Readings


Writing feels impossible, each word the move of Sisyphus. My stories and poems are lackluster; they stare back at me with that look on their faces. "So what?" they say. Nothing I write feels earned or necessary. I'm just putting in time, yet I'm afraid to stop and simply wait for the work to ripen on its own, afraid I will lose it completely. All I want is to find the pulse, what I must write, but my mind is like a pinball machine with thousands of possibilities bouncing off at once, and I can't hold onto any of them long enough. I am not able to be the ox that Barry Hannah says a writer must be; I cannot see with tunnel vision, plod the straightest path through a piece of work. How did my other poems and stories come, as if unbidden? Strange to look back at my best pieces and not be able to recall how they were engendered. Waking this morning, these lines came to me: "I am the rooster who has forgotten how. You are morning, caught in my throat." Is this the writer, speaking to her work?

                                                                    *****
I am feeling again the stupid courage necessary to plunge back into the book, to start fresh and see where it will take me. But I am also terrified, partly because I will have to throw away even more than I already have, which feels like waste to me. Intellectually I know nothing is ever wasted, but emotionally I am not so sure. What will become of the failed chapters, the years of work? I've written the book twice already. Do I have the energy to carry it through one more time? Of course, no one can answer the question except myself; no one will keep me going except myself.

                                                                    *****
Yesterday while walking at midday, a fear overcame me--that the words that have always fed me would flee, never to return. In an interview, Edna O'Brien once talked about the underground springs in Ireland that suddenly dry up; yet often, when the water-diviners come, they find another spring. She said that writers must learn to be their own water-diviners. Maybe this is the hardest task of all--to trust that another spring will be found. In the meantime, what do we do? Do I try, as Marge Piercy says, to squeeze poems "out of the absolute zero/of my night"? Or do I dumbly wait, like a fallow field? When I'm not feeling generous, when I don't feel I have anything to give back to the world, should I even try to write? …

Rilke speaks of the "listening blue" in Cezanne's still lifes and landscapes, the blue that encompasses and "listens to" the bright primary reds and yellows. I think of writers as this listening blue, mediating between the work and the audience, helping birth the truth of what must be said, yet waiting for signs, not pushing what must be said or trying to put words into the mouth of the work. The form informs the words; the words inform the form. It is all one, and the artist must live in this uneasy state of receptor and maker, all in the same breath. No wonder truth is so hard to get out; it forms itself within the materials and within the processes of the work itself. Maybe my job as a writer is to keep one ear to the ground to listen for the work to speak.
Insult to injury: my work comes back from the editors postage due : The Ransom of Red Poem? A trip to the post office to retrieve the bad boy held hostage so long, I'd forgotten his name. Did he bite too hard? More likely he whined until his keepers, weary of his face, finally screamed, "Back to your mother!" and pointed to the door.

                                                                    *****
"The plot thickens." Oh, if only a book were like pudding--once it thickens, it's done. And nourishing. And pronounced delicious by all who eat it. Unfortunately, it is not that way. Does it ever get easier? Now that I'm caught in the middle of the process, it seems more mysterious, more difficult than ever. How does a book ever get written?
I cannot let myself think, "This must be good." Thinking this way paralyzes me. The little gremlins in the back of my mind mock me, make it hard to focus, to trust, to allow the connections to make themselves. I must give myself permission--no, encouragement!--to write badly.

                                                                    *****
An exhilarating morning in the library reading about the lives of chickens and roosters, and about the birthing of cows. I love facts. The world is so large and fascinating that I could read day in and night out, and not begin to touch the mysteries. If someone would pay my bills, I would gladly read for a living. Yes, as long as I think of myself as a reader, I am joyous; library shelves glow with amber light and the books, thousands and thousands of books, wrap themselves around me.
But when it's time to write, I shiver, caught in the shadows of other writers. My pen squeezes out each word, like blood the nurse smears on the slide. How can I write a poem about wives and mistresses when Sexton has done it so well? On the wall behind me is Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a book almost too beautiful to bear. How was he able to weave the private love stories with the public political questions, and make such a durable cloth? Yesterday I spent four hours trying to move one character from the refrigerator to the bed. At times like this I feel like one of those cartoon characters who gets dropped onto a conveyor belt and plops out the other end--alive, yet squished into the shape of a box, all the features intact yet rearranged.

Toni Morrison's Sula is at my elbow; I pick it up. Each sentence is rich and authentic, and I immediately begin to wish I could write with that kind of voice. Then it occurs to me: her voice would not sound authentic coming from my throat, just as my voice could not come from hers. It is so difficult to trust our own voices, to feel we have anything to say. I must remind myself that the importance of any work of art lies not only in the effect it might have on some imagined reader, but also in the impulse, the necessity from which it springs. Though it must finally be honed and tested and crafted for another's ear or eye, it is nothing if it does not flow from that original impulse.

                                                                    *****
I have never felt happier, more alive. Yesterday I broke my two-month silence and wrote a new poem! And in the same day I saw the way to revise the failed one; the poem itself finally turned on me, revealing its true self. Isn't this what every writer hopes for--an insurrection, her own words rising up, telling secrets on her? Again it comes back to that first place: writing itself is the work, the joy, the reward. All else, as my friend Agnes says, is Chinese boxes.
Here's another small victory, a first for me. A "No" came in the mail this afternoon and, for the first time, I did not feel hurt. Instead, while filing the note with all the others I've accumulated over the years, I crossed out the folder label marked "Rejections" and renamed it "Free to Send Out." I am so happy to be writing poems again that, for now, I don't really care if anyone wants them.

                                                                    *****
Michaelangelo believed the statues he sculpted were already hidden inside the marble. He could not quite visualize the figure, but he knew it was only a matter of chipping away the surface. So this morning at my desk, while I was attending to a different task, the excess marble fell away and I saw the shape for the work. Its name will be The Riddle Song, and it will have twelve parts. Full grown, it will be one third the size of its mother, the dead novel. It is all so clear to me now, after all the years of labor, after I had given up. This must be the creative hatching that Einstein described: : "Kieks--auf einmal ist es da!" Cheep-and all at once there it is.