Virginia Woolf never steers me wrong. When I begin my day by randomly flipping open A Writer’s Diary to see what wisdom she offers, there is always a gift waiting there for me. Elegant, beautiful, wise, thought provoking.
We need to be lifted up by the thoughts of others. At least I do.
Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hahn, Sylvia Boorstein—these are a few old friends I keep near me. And so I was stretched out on the chaise lounge in my office when I read these words:
“My bread bakes well. All is rather rapt, simple, quick, effective—except for my blundering on at The Waves. I write two pages of arrant nonsense, after straining; I write variations of every sentence; compromises; bad shots; possibilities; till my writing book is like a lunatic’s dream. Then I trust to some inspiration on re-reading; and pencil them into some sense. Still I am not satisfied. I think there is something lacking. I sacrifice nothing to seemliness. I press to my center.”
I press to my center.
How many lessons there are to be learned in this one brief paragraph! First, the revelation that Woolf felt she was blundering as she was writing one of her masterpieces. That we all feel we blunder. We are failing at every moment to get it right. We are intimidated. Our inner censor shouts at us that we’re no good. The chasm between the perfect work that exists in our imagination and the chicken scratch we managed to come up with feels too much to bear. Woolf wrote through it all. She understood on some deep level that how she felt about her work was none of her business. She was willing to put her lunatic’s dream down on paper. Then, the shaping, the penciling into some sense. Still—and of course!—she is dissatisfied. Something’s missing. Something’s wrong. She stays longer, doesn’t polish it into prettiness, but instead, presses deeper, ever closer to the center, to the place where it’s pulsing, tiny, alive.
I don’t know about you, but I need to learn these lessons again and again. I lose sight of how hard it is for all of us and assume that it’s just hard for me.
I wake up with my mind ironed clean, the best of intentions, but within moments of my feet hitting the floor, already, I’ve begun to fret. The dog left a stain on the carpet. I need to schedule a doctor’s appointment. Those expenses for a recent business trip need to be turned in. My inbox is full of chores. Letters to be written. Why not do them now? The chores are real, but they can also be done later. They’re a hedge against the true work at hand.
My job—the one that I have done for better or worse for the past twenty years—does not involve the dog stain, doctor’s appointment, expenses, letters. My real job involves pressing to the center. It’s hard and painful and, god, there is always something to distract us, something easier to do. (Baking bread, perhaps?)
My life is the writing life, but these lessons are true for all of us who are attempting to live creatively.
We sit down to meditate, or we unroll our yoga mat, or we set out on a contemplative walk, or we pick up the phone to make a difficult call to a friend. We still our minds; we look inward. We know that our greatest gifts require excavation. We dig. We walk the path of most resistance. Sitting still, being patient, allowing the lunatic dream to take shape. Who are we, really? We want to know. We need to know. And, so, we grow still and quiet and move past the voices that tell us otherwise. We burrow down, becoming willing—no, more than willing, being wide open—and we press the bruise until it blossoms.
Dani Shapiro’s most recent books include the bestselling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion and the novels Black & White and Family History. She teaches writing workshops nationally and internationally. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, O The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, and have been broadcast on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives with her family in Connecticut. You can also follow Dani on Twitter and Facebook.
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