Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.
Those are the closing sentences in Nashville author, Ann Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life,” which was first published in Byliner in September of 2011. Now it appears—along with 20 other essays—as a chapter in her recently published book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
Whether or not you’ve read any of Patchett’s six novels or three works of nonfiction, if you’re a writer, or even an avid reader of good writing, you’ll love this book. I’ll listen to someone with her track record. In addition to publishing award-winning writing, Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. I’m only part-way through reading the book, but I thought I’d pause and share a few jewels today. Three, actually.
First one: SET THE BAR HIGH
One more thing to think about when putting a novel together: make it hard. Set your sights on something that you aren’t quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally, or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three. I raise the bar with every book I write, making sure I’m doing something that is uncomfortably beyond what I can manage. It’s the only way I know to improve over time, and going back to Russell Banks’s advice, I’m the only person who can make myself do better work.
This was so encouraging to me, as I already feel stretched with my first novel, Cherry Bomb. Not so much in the concept, or even the research and original drafts. But in the revision stage, which I’m muddling through with great difficulty. On days when I feel I’m not up to the challenge, I’m going to try to remember Pathett’s advice.
Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off. But don’t give ‘putting if off’ a magic label. Writer’s block is out of our control, like a blocked kidney. We are not responsible. We are, however, entirely responsible for procrastination and, in the best of all possible worlds, should also be responsible for being honest with ourselves about what’ really going on…. What this means is that I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one—writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it, but if you’ve read this far, you must be pretty interested in writing yourself, and if you are, well, you know what I’m talking about.)
Third nugget: FORGIVENESS IS THE KEY TO MAKING ART
Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life….
I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore is the key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life, I will forgive myself.
This was a new concept for me. That I need to forgive myself for my inadequacies in my work as an artist, as a writer. But I think Patchett is on to something here. As she says, this fear keeps people from becoming writers. I’m so glad she didn’t give in to it, and I am now determined not to give in to it. I will forgive myself and write on!
And beyond the writing, I love what she says about how forgiveness is “very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”