Life Work

I have been writing in some form for most of my life, and began keeping a journal at the age of 14. Aside from a few and far between occasions, I haven’t published my work. Not that I haven’t thought about it or wanted to. But my prevailing drive has been to write for its own sake, just to follow and explore the process of writing, to observe what happens when I have a regular writing practice and what happens when I get lazy and abandon my writing and my self. (Hint: the latter does not end in prettiness.)

I don’t resist publication out of some noble purity. Rather, for most of my life, it’s just been too damn scary to put my words out there. Papers for school were terrifying to me. Routinely, I would procrastinate…for months. Routinely, I would receive the paper back with two grades: one for the paper if I’d turned it on time, one for the actual grade the paper garnered. The promise of the higher grade did nothing to overcome my fear nor cure my procrastination. (Had I been a wiser child, that might have taught me that external rewards mean little in the grand scheme of things, but that is a lesson I still study and get wrong.)

Through my early years, when I did share something I wrote, I expected/hoped for one of two extremes: a national parade or public shaming. I wanted a response and I wanted it to be big.

What I wanted, I now realize, what I yearned for from either of those responses, was a forfeit of responsibility to my writing. What I wanted was an absolute, a stamp of approval or damnation that would permanently fix my relationship to writing. A judgment that would install me in the heavens where I believed the authors of New Yorker short stories strolled and chatted.  100906_cn-tilley_p465Or a dismissal that would cure me of the itch to write. Either imaginary response held the promise of certainty. Most of all, either response took away from me the lifelong task of finding my way by trying on different forms (fiction, essay, poetry) and different jobs (editing, reporting, writing coach, writing group facilitator), finding my way through doubt, fear, ecstasy, pride, the boredom and despair of fallow times, envy, mania, depression. The drama queen in me wanted a clear message from the outside: you belong, or get out and never think of writing again. I wanted someone else to decide for me what my life’s work would be about.

Of course, no one can decide for us what our life’s work will be. The work itself decides, when it keeps coming back time after time, even after we push it away, ignore it, abuse it with excess, or try to flog it for our own aggrandizement. It keeps coming back, insisting on us, tapping us on the shoulder quietly, getting us to try again, to humble ourselves before the task that it needs us to perform. Eventually, if we’re lucky, time gives us the opportunity to get out of our own way and settle down to the task we’ve been given to do.

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