I just read a really terrific short story, and now I feel myself bobbing like a cork toward a deep dark cataract of despair. On the one hand, part of me truly delights in this well-crafted, mysterious piece of prose by a writer of growing renown. At the same time, though, the marvelment I feel is coated in a very thick layer of, not envy exactly, but a sense of comparative professional inadequacy. I stare at the pages in my hands like I’m trying to decipher hieroglyphs, and I ask myself: How did he do that? How did he write something so subtle and memorable and complex? Why can’t I do that? When will I be able to do that? Will I ever?
I say that I’m floating toward a deep dark cataract of despair — deep and dark, yes, but not unfamiliar. I have plunged off of this particular waterfall before, many times throughout my tenure as a graduate student of creative writing. However, even though I feel the currents of self-doubt sweeping me once again toward that bottomless pit of I’m-not-good-enough, I don’t think I’m going to fall off this time. Over the past few years I have learned to trust that if I remain faithful to the slow and toilsome process of becoming a writer, I will — painfully, incrementally — begin to produce the work I dream of making. In short, I have learned how to wait.
Writers know all about waiting. We wait — and wait, and wait — for some editor somewhere to decide that she likes our story or poem or novella well enough to publish it. More importantly, we wait for our literary abilities to catch up with our literary ambitions. When I was in college I asked an instructor for feedback on a short story I’d written. He returned the story to me with this comment written in the margin: “This is the kind of story that makes me want to hang myself with my shoelaces.” After reading that verdict, I laughed for half an hour, cried for half a day, resolved to punish myself for my literary ineptitude for 15 minutes, and finally ended up licking my wounds and a Dreamsicle in the coffee shop across the street from my apartment. I felt much better after the Dreamsicle, but I was still embarrassed by my failure and overwhelmed by the vast gap between what I wanted to write and what I was capable of writing.
I sat down to write my next story with a great deal of trepidation and absolutely nothing to say. For a few long minutes I teetered on the edge of that cataract, tempted by my own shortcomings to give up. Then I started writing. I wrote about having nothing to write about. I wrote about how I wanted this teacher to like me, to think I was a good writer. In short, I wrote a lot of nonsense. Then, without really noticing (let alone planning) what I was doing, I started to write about my childhood, and eventually my inchoate ramblings began to take on shape and structure, began to resemble a story. That story earned me the respect of my teacher and, later on, acceptance to an MFA program to study fiction writing.
And then I lived happily ever after with my literary success assured, never to be plagued by doubts and insecurities again. Well, no. My acceptance to graduate school meant that I’d have to relive that blank-page ritual over and over again, only with tougher and occasionally snarkier critics. Still, I learned some important lessons from the Dreamsicle experience. Chief among them, I learned that I must not give up. I would have to wait patiently to become the writer I wanted to be.
Waiting patiently, though, is not the same as waiting passively. If I twiddle my thumbs and wait for the Muse to strike, I will never write a word. The Muse strikes only those people who already have pens in their hands. If I wait for my life to magically make room for my writing, I will wait until I’m dead. There will never be room unless I make some room. We think of waiting as an empty period of doing nothing, but in this case waiting means immense activity. Waiting means plugging away even when I don’t feel ready, even when my phrases are clunky and my ambition to be a writer seems like a hopeless, ridiculous dream. Conversely, impatience means inactivity. Impatience means I won’t do the work unless I can get the results I want now — right now. An impatient person gives up and does nothing. A patient person keeps her lamp trimmed and her oil ready.
Writing doesn’t just resemble an act of faith. It is an act of faith. The thing that keeps me writing, that keeps me from bobbing over the deep dark cataract and into the abyss, is my belief, my faith, in the process of writing. I believe that it is possible for human beings to create beauty and meaning with the written word. I believe that every disappointing story I produce right now is a necessary precursor to some distant, elegant story that I can only reach by writing my way there. Good things do come to those who wait, provided they wait long and actively. Hokey? Yes. Maddening? Sure. Essential? Absolutely.