I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so. (“Joyce Carol Oates” in George Plimpton, ed., Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 1989)
In my late twenties and early thirties, while I’ve moved from small apartment to slightly less small apartment, my grandmother’s beautiful Royal Copenhagen china, passed on to me after she died and her house was sold, has sat wrapped in newspaper and in cardboard boxes in my mother’s cluttered basement. I kept thinking they’d have to wait until I was living in a house with room for a catalog-worthy hutch or sideboard where I could house them. And once they were there, I envisioned having “Sunday dinners,” inviting different people over each Sunday for a simple meal to eat off of these beautiful plates. But living in pure survival mode for at least four of the last five years, the boxes of hand painted china would have to wait- an indefinite amount of time.
For a long part of my life, I’ve fit the definition of insanity according to Einstein fairly well-doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I’ve tried to get everything “all set” before I could start any of the things I was truly passionate about. Self-care and writing were always last in line after a thorough purging, reorganization, and redesign of every room in my apartment. Those were the kinds of projects I could start and complete. I knew I could do them so they temporarily quelled my perfectionist tendencies. And then I’d move, and start the process all over again. You know, the “just as soon as…then” style of living.
Motherhood seems to encourage this kind of thinking. Babies and later toddlers are all-consuming in their neediness. And there are the markers- when he/she enters preschool-or elementary school- then I’ll have time to tackle that project or start exercising.
Only two times in my life have I felt the contentment and satisfaction of seemingly having just about everything together. Shortly after both, I suffered the two greatest losses of my life.
The truth is, we
may never will never get it all together. Blog-worthy, Facebook photo worthy- together. Every item checked off of our to-do list, every closet organized, every thank you note sent, DIY project done, book read, dish washed. But all of that is an illusion anyway- a mirage. When I was pregnant and living in Brooklyn, I had shared with a friend and fellow to-do list obsessor that I had actually checked everything off my lists. I had the summer off after teaching as an adjunct at a local college. Maybe it was the nesting hormones, but I tackled one thing after another until every project I’d ever conceived- was done. A few months later, I lost my home and almost everything in it. All of the work I had done- gone. My friend told me after learning of my experience she was actually wary of ever checking everything off her list. It is good to be wary of this, I think. When you are truly done, well- it’s because your time will be over here.
So, how does one “begin” something worthwhile right where one is? How does one push aside all that is still unfinished- to begin something else- something that isn’t necessarily urgent and might not have an immediate result? Here are my thoughts:
- Realize that your time here isn’t infinite. It truly is limited. It will have an end, and you have no idea right now when that will be.
- Live in an imaginary box. A daily grief devotional I used to read suggested that since looking into the future can be so difficult when you’re grieving, it is OK to just live life in the present day- as if there is a small imaginary globe around you each day and you need only live inside that space. Alcoholics Anonymous follows a similar philosophy. If life is really a compilation of days and choices, within the safe confines of each day we can choose to do the things that are truly important. Having a spouse who lost his life suddenly, with no warning, reminds me to choose carefully. It reminds me when I’m tired at the end of the day and eager to get my daughter to bed, to speak gently and lovingly because this day in this imaginary box- is all that exists. It reminds me when she’s finally asleep, and I want to zone out and watch TV or stare at the Internet, that I should sit down and try to write something. Because even if I die before I ever get to pull together the pages and see a book with my name on it- I’ll have spent my days- my life- writing- in process. Not procrastinating, not avoiding, not obsessing, – but beginning.
- Let the dust pile up. Writer Louise Erdrich reads from her “Advice to Myself,” in this interview clip with Bill Moyers, (worth watching) “Leave the dishes, let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator and an earthen scumb harden on the kitchen floor. Leave the black crumbs at the bottom of the toaster, throw the cracked bowl out, don’t patch the cup, don’t patch anything…” To be the prolific author (and mother) that she is, she had to give herself this advice and permission to let other things go. Despite what our culture likes to believe, we really can’t do it all. So, choose wisely, and be willing to embrace the undone. Erdrich describes her writing process as “a small, incremental, persistent insect-like devotion to putting one word next to the next word.” This is what it’s like to begin and persist in something worthwhile. It is entering into process- the very opposite of being “all set.”
- Be willing to tinker and let things evolve. Brandon Stanton, the creator of one of my favorite pieces, Humans of New York, says this: “Don’t wait for the perfect moment. Humans of New York, when I started it, was nothing like it is now. … It didn’t emerge from me thinking a fully formed idea and executing it. It emerged from me tinkering and working and evolving. So many people wait until the pieces are in place to start, and often that moment never comes.” It’s OK to start something without really knowing exactly where it’s going. Letting things develop and evolve organically often works better than a strategic plan. The decor in my home that ends up being my favorite are always the areas or pieces that just naturally arranged themselves over time. The ones I’ve planned and researched in catalogs often end up looking forced and disappointing. It’s the organic quality of a space evolving that feels good. I never begin writing with every bullet point of an idea in my mind. I often don’t really know which direction a piece will go. Sometimes as I write, I think- “This is just horrible. I should abandon this.” But don’t forget about what writer Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” If you don’t get the material out there- you have nothing to tinker with.
- Start with beauty. In the online sketching class I took, the teacher didn’t give some formula about where to start a sketch- on the edges, or in the center, the hardest or easiest part. Instead, he suggested starting with whatever in the scene or object most captured your attention. It’s OK to be led by what catches your eye- by your favorite part.
We got home from a week at the beach a few days ago, and I found myself feeling the low of coming home, feeling unaccomplished. I went outside to weed and while I was doing this Sisyphean task, I had an idea. I was suddenly sick of waiting for the larger home and the beautiful hutch to use my grandmother’s dishes and host a Sunday dinner. I called my parents and asked my mother if she could bring over just enough dishes for the four of us to have dinner. Even though I was tired, I made a simple pasta and pesto and a big salad. And then we ate at the table on those beautiful dishes.
Our time here isn’t infinite. Each day is a small work of art. Let the dust pile up. Take a vision and let it evolve. Get the words out there on the page- and then start tinkering. Start with beauty, your favorite part- the part that catches your eye. Beginning is really another way of saying becoming. Unwrap the newspaper and take out from the boxes whatever you can carry for now, and prepare the table.