Over the holidays, I described to my sister-in-law how I’d spent the day writing and re-writing a single sentence. Unsuccessfully. I had, at that point, five pages, single-spaced, of useless versions of a particular sentiment. You might ask, why not just pick one and move on? Do you really think anyone else will care that much about a single sentence in a whole book? And the thing is, no, I don’t. But I know what that sentence needed to do, or what it stood for: the amount and texture of information it needed to convey. And it wasn’t. So I kept writing it.
“It sounds like writing takes a lot of patience,” my sister-in-law said. She made a face. “I don’t think I’m that patient.” And you know what? Most people aren’t. Art requires a very particular kind of patience—this same sister-in-law has a six-year-old child, so in many ways she’s more patient than me. But I suppose there is a difference between performing the patience that the outside world requires of you, and creating the interior space to do a task that no one has really asked for.
(Just in case you’re wondering, I don’t think one form is better than the other. I just think they’re different.)
That day, the day I wrote the same sentence—unsuccessfully!—so many times, was a frustrating day. I could qualify “frustrating” for you: incredibly, powerfully, indescribably. But you know what frustration feels like: it always feels very. I ground my teeth that day. I sent a lot of wailing texts. I balled my hands up into fists and then flexed my fingers and I didn’t feel better at all.
But there is a form of meditation in this work. I have never properly meditated, but I imagine the struggle is somewhat similar: your success in it coming not just from the moments of perfect peace or (in the case of writing) accomplishment or flow—but rather from the work your body does in getting there. You are not a “good” meditator if you start out as the Buddha and coast from there. And similarly, good writers are not necessarily the ones to whom everything comes easy. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. Easy come, easy go.
I have now written a sentence that maybe—maybe—works in the place that I hoped all those pages of sentences would fill. It does not resemble them. It is different. But the pages I wrote are not wasted work, because they were necessary to get to the (hopefully) good one.
It’s harder for me to maintain this attitude towards the career of writing than the practice of writing, because the career requires submission to so many external factors. It requires waiting to be told if you have succeeded or failed, and then mostly ignoring that telling. Or trying to. Someday, a retrospective narrative will be applied to what you did and who you were, and the ups and downs will all feel built-in, as necessary as the dips and rises on a roller coaster. They both need to be there, not just for the contrast but for the concept.
So let’s do the work. And let’s sit on the couch and read, drinking tea. And let’s spook two coyotes in one of our favorite alleyways while walking the dog on a sunny morning. Let’s see a hawk dive into a tree and scatter starlings as though they had shattered from one greater creature, into pieces in air. Let’s do that. And the other. And the other.