I just returned from a trip out east visiting old friends and mentors at my MFA program. I also toured the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. I’ve struggled this summer with my writing, or rather, my inability to sit at the desk and make anything worthwhile happen. After near misses and big rejections, though there have been some acceptances and publications too, I’ve lost confidence and am having trouble finding that spark to light the way forward.
While chatting with some of my writing mentors, people I admire greatly, and who by industry standards are measured as successes, I found myself most drawn to their talk of failure. One said he had not had a book accepted since 2008 though he has completed and submitted books to his agent. Another has labored through revision after revision, year after year, to finally celebrate the release of her new title in 2016. What I’m learning is this is the writer’s life. The exceptions, those who flaunt a new title every year, are just that, exceptions. Most writers, very good writers, slog through the trenches each day with no promise to hold them other than that they will do the work.
On the tour of Twain’s house in Hartford, the guide made sure to point out that the money that bought the house, furnished the house, and paid the bills was mainly available because Clemens married well. Though Twain, the pseudonym for the rambler, Samuel Clemens, is one of America’s most beloved, enduring authors, it wasn’t his books that made him the most money during his lifetime, but rather his ability to “lecture” stand-up style on topics of the day. Just like most of the writers I know, Twain had to be creative in a variety of ways to make ends meet. He wasn’t always successful and brilliant. Standing in his writing/playing pool room where he once smoked cheap stogies, wrote his stories, and entertained nightly, I was drawn to the simple wooden bins along one wall where he put the work that wasn’t working yet, letting it stew for a while in the smoke and heat. One of those books that had to wait until the writer and the world was ready for it was Huckleberry Finn.
What I’m finding as a writer, and as a person in general, is that knowing how to edit and edit well is important. Sometimes it’s relationships. Sometimes it’s locations. Sometimes it’s the work itself. If people aren’t helping to refill the well, if the place I’m in isn’t inspiring me, if the writing isn’t working, what can I do to fix these things? Should I cut ties? Move? Throw the work out and try something new? Or should I sit tight and let the “smoke and heat” do their job?
As I struggle this summer to fill pages with fresh ideas and reinvigorate older work, it is often easiest to think I need to give up entirely, or to edit my writer self. Maybe take up knitting? Or write flashier, shinier, trendier? Vampire mermaids in space? But wait. Is that really what I’m here to do?
It’s still a good picture, but did we lose something by being self-conscious? Did we lose that spark that makes us who we are? We are in our fifties. We do wear years on our faces. But we are beautiful, creative souls, just the same.
So here’s the thing. Sometimes we have to edit. Sometimes we have to wait. Sometimes we have to move on.
And sometimes we have to trust our unique, spontaneous, beautiful souls to figure out how to survive until everything falls into place again.