I could suggest I’m grappling with writing—with the idea of writing, perhaps, and how the idea crumbles when I sit down to write; how I pan in the dust for gold and will myself to proceed though a dense and peculiar metal, of itself, is meaningless; how I come up dry and uncertain, but then find a sparkle or two in the half-light just as I turn away, and suddenly am renewed—but the real grappling is with the need to be measurable. The real grappling is with the notion that I might say, I love this, and in loving it and acting upon that love, create a fuller version of myself, or that in my failure to do so, I might fail not only some selfish dream to which I feel prey, but the pure dream on which my life was founded.
We worry we will not become who we have always been.
Of course ultimately it is none of these things, really. And yet it is all of them. It is whatever it takes to be reduced to an instant of creative complicity with all that exists, so that this becomes my sole purpose for being. There is a moment, one step beyond our base desire, when the sorcery actually works and we are entangled with new life—it is with us and in us even as it rises onto its own shaky legs to become a fresh and growing thing, a living thing quivering with potential we cannot explain.
I have been reading, in fits and starts, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and I very much enjoyed the passage in which he attempts to describe the motive in the art: the need to express some truth of our lives that can only be expressed in the way a narrative takes shape. This “truth” cannot be reduced to some principle of morality or theme. It can only be stirred up and aroused, blown into the air through the sleight of hand that we call writing—just as our own lives I think, stand for something that can never quite be reduced to labels and boxes.
We each stand for such a subtle truth that emerges in the fullness of our living, in the way we yearn and stumble through time and circumstance; in the way we call out, seek to know and be known; in the way we attempt to take the measure of ourselves and one another—though how tragically pointless is this pursuit of taking measure?
In college when I signed-up for a fiction writing class as a senior elective instead of another engineering or mathematics course, I remember wondering at one point: if it is true that we can shake off the chains of concept and ego, what stories would there be? What would be the point of this art if suffering were no more? How could you have plot without the conflict—character without man or woman against the world, against one another, against what has befallen them?
I still wonder sometimes, but of course it is a silly question. It is a bit like asking whether or not life would still be valuable were we to experience its beauty and lasting perfection in a deeper way. Surely this is not an idle pursuit! I think the fact would remain: art in all its forms, including life itself, would exist to tell a truth that cannot be reduced to a more primitive form. This is why there is so little to be found in conforming to particular definitions or concepts of success in this life: to live for someone else is to believe the content of one’s own unique revelations, when unearthed through the art of living—or writing, or building, or studying, or sailing, or experimenting—will not be enough.
This of course is the beginning and ending of all our difficulty.
My fiction work to date is deficient in various and measurable ways; of this I have no doubt. I am like the violin student producing screeches a half-step out of key; but I do think there have been truths unearthed, in the middle of it somehow, that cannot be reduced. And I think that as I learn to trust them more, and to contemplate less their relative worthiness, one day I will find myself bewildered and standing in the presence of new life. The attempt is helping me to overcome these final and beguiling expectations for myself, to admit I don’t know what I am doing even if it produces moments of soul-cradling sweetness.
It seems a solitary pursuit, but the sensations of doubt lead me back to the beginning, and to the realization that we are all related—we are all the same in our need to know and be known, to share in moments of intimacy and grace, to have a feeling that is ratified or an insight that inspires, to birth in our very lives a truth we could not have known otherwise. Writing is far too feeble and fleeting a pastime to carry the weight of a life, but left alone, freed of idols and fixations, it may perhaps surprise us.
Just as we may surprise ourselves to realize that, in all our driven fury, we have always been right here: in the room, in the moment, in the time, where new life emerges.