About a month ago, a good friend and I both found ourselves wanting to get back into a regular writing practice, so we resolved to write for just 15 minutes a day at least five days a week and report to each other how we were doing. Fifteen minutes isn’t much time, but really it’s the time that matters most, because it’s the time you have to actually sit yourself down and try to write something. And once you’ve managed that, it’s usually pretty easy to keep going for longer. At the same time, knowing it only has to be 15 minutes makes it seem very non-threatening and achievable.
So far, it’s been equal parts fun and frustrating. The fun part is that with such low expectations (you can’t usually do a whole lot in 15 minutes) and low pressure (if what I write is terrible today, that’s okay because I’ll be writing something else tomorrow), there’s a lot of freedom. I’ve found myself writing things that are far more experimental and random than I might normally write. The critic in my head is pretty much silenced by the understanding that it’s not really the product that matters so much as the habit itself, which gives me permission to play.
The frustrating part is that sickening drop in the stomach that happens when I’m sitting there with a blank screen or paper and have absolutely no idea what to write. When I feel like I have nothing with which to fill the void or to pattern the blank space. It’s just there: empty, waiting. In a rather serendipitous coincidence, I’ve been making my way through T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” lately and came across this chunk, which sums things up far better than I ever could:
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
Later he concludes, somewhat more hopefully, that “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” Of course, he’s talking about his own long career as a poet and a craftsman of words at the very highest level, but his observations are true even for me at my most basic, clumsy, and amateurish level–my 15 minutes a day. Difficult as it may be, there is a value and satisfaction in the trying, in at least making the attempt to put some kind of language or form to those inarticulate impulses or responses of the heart and mind. It is, in its own way, in the tradition of Adam and Eve giving names to creation, mimicking the Creator with an attempt to create something of substance out of words.
Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once stated, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” Recognition of the significance of an event, and the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. Those words could easily be applied to poetry as well, minus the “simultaneous” and “fraction of a second” parts. Rather than a fraction of a second, it might take months or years or never happen at all. And that, too, is the wonderful and frustrating part–putting something down when you’re not entirely sure of its significance, and you’re definitely not sure about form. That uncertainty is painful, but in many respects, it’s also a highly beneficial practice in faith and communion. As Wendell Berry observes, “the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making.”
I think that’s my favorite part of writing–that when we give words to something and create our forms, it’s never entirely ours. There’s no voice that’s purely my own–it’s a manifestation of all the experiences and people and words and writers who have impacted me over the years, along with that ineffable Other that emerges in any creative act. And if it should come out lumpy and crummy and not at all resemble what I’d hoped it would? There is consolation for that too, again from the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry, who says, “The unknown is the mercy and it may be the redemption of the known. The given word may come to appear to be wrong, or wrongly given. But the unknown still lies ahead of it, and so who is finally to say? If time has apparently proved it wrong, more time may prove it right. As growth has called it into question, further growth may reaffirm it.”
The unknown has always terrified me and makes me want to grasp (however illusory it may be) whatever control I can. But that same unknown is also the the one hope of it all turning out the way it was meant to be. For the right form to finally emerge.