We cannot seem to escape paradox. I do not think I want to.
—Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
I’ve got a shelf full of books on writing that keeps growing. I don’t think I’ve read even half the stack, but I know the first two pages of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life almost by heart. She describes the beginning of any writing project as laying down a line of words that become a pick, a gouge, a probe to dig a path, so the writer can follow where it leads, to see if it leads anywhere at all. Once the writer has gotten somewhere, has seen something to report back to her readers, it’s sometimes necessary to erase those first lines, she says, those initial entry ramps onto the highway. (She doesn’t say anything about not mixing metaphors.)
I am afraid of that bold first line of words. “Are you a woman, or a mouse?” Dillard asks, meaning, are you brave enough to do this thing? But I am afraid any time I set out to lay such a line down, because even here in the beginning, just preparing to enter the on-ramp, there are too many tools to choose from, too many directions from which to approach this main road of meaning that I can only spy from the distance till I’ve made myself dig in and get my hands dirty. Or, till I’ve hit the blinker and made the turn. Another voice from my writing shelf joins the fray: Charity Singleton Craig, in The Art of the Essay, says, “As a writer, I start where I am.” But Shirley Jackson, famed author of “The Lottery” and less-known writer of piercingly hilarious personal nonfiction, pipes up to say that everything in her life, all day long, can be made into a story. Which image, which phrase, which idea from what part of my day or family or life will I sketch into words across the paper?
My brain thinks in bubble maps. In mad, expanding clusters of ever-connecting thought; straight lines are an enigma, and like Shirley Jackson, I know it: Anything can make a story. I am a thousand places at once, and it paralyzes me that there are so many inroads, so many ways to approach any one tale. The question isn’t even where to begin, or how, but why? I may have a million stories inside me waiting to be told, but the fact that any given essay, any given novel, could be labored forth with any given face, or body, or personality, simply based on where I choose to hit my blinker and enter traffic – or which patch of ground into which I dig my first shovel marks – makes me feel god-like, and not in a good way. As if I know anything. As if I am capacious enough to determine what is the one thing to choose to write down, first, on this blank page, right now.
Andrew Peterson’s Adorning the Dark leans up against Dillard on my books-about-writing shelf. In it, Peterson says that what I write actually “takes up narrative space in the story of the world,” but my impulse says, Please, no. If there isn’t a right way or a best way to tell these tales that groan within me until they’re given life, well, once I start thinking that way, the creativity drains out of the whole operation.
I find myself veering off course. In his preface, Peterson describes the way each sibling in a family recounts a different version of her childhood; every person on this planet has his own story to tell. On the one hand, he says, no one needs that story. Untold, the earth will keep spinning. Life will come and go. Why is this so encouraging? Even Annie Dillard agrees, in a way: when you’re honing down what you’ve already written, toss the words that don’t actually matter to the work. “Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world.” We are not gods, she suggests elsewhere. What, then, are we writers? Why mash up any group of ideas or words together? Even if we can organize them so they ring pretty and even true, what is the point?
Richard Wilbur’s poem The Writer has a bird flying around a room, frantic in the rafters. Peterson interprets, saying writing is like that, “is always a matter of life and death,” and that “finding the right arrangements of words is like a bird being trapped in a house, trying to find its way through the open window.” But Peterson and Dillard say, each in his and her own way, that the world will continue just fine without my penned pieces. So maybe, maybe writing isn’t a matter of life and death for others—and that is, indeed, a relief, especially when I survey the ground and find all manner of soils rich for digging—but for me. I am made to do it, which I know chiefly because of the urgency I feel in so many given moments to find that window to fly out of, to excavate and illuminate so many instances of meaning. And even if I knock my head on every square inch of the ceiling before I find my way, I can’t keep from keeping at the work. The right words, whatever that means, or maybe the best available ones, or any combination of them that crystallizes into some truth leaving all the other potential combinations of my thought cloud to disappear into past potentials, may rescue me, or heal me, or make me just a little bit more honest and true. And as Singleton Craig says, the work of nonfiction is “to search for the truth.” I keep digging.
Peterson also says that my own personal story, like his, “stands the chance to be edifying” to others, “is something the rest of us need.” This, though contradictory, is also encouraging. My multi-tasking mind continues to spin, sending a multitude of thought bubbles into the heightened stratosphere of my consciousness, where they hang like new constellations, compelling. And then all the mad components of this life and of myself start to fall together in any number of sensical ways, in ways that make some meaning of both the darkness and the beauty out there, and so I pipe up—I write things down—because I have to, and I contribute my words to the stories that are always being told, generation overlapping generation of poets, essayists, and novelists. My words are akin to how Madeleine L’Engle (her book Walking on Water rests on the shelf right between Peterson and Dillard) describes her own: little streams contributing to that large river of artistic meaning, flowing steadily toward the ocean of truth. My “heart is so full, it must be poured out,” describes Peterson, as though he knows me: “You see the world as a dark, messy place that needs rearranging. And with all that light shooting out of your pores you’re just the person to do it.”
In a Fall 2019 interview with Lancia Smith for the Cultivating Project, Andrew Peterson knocks any residual fear about which line of words to lay down out of the water: “Story, in a philosophical sense, is timeless truth, stretched over time; it is uncontainable love, contained in time. We learn it only by moving forward, like a needle on a record player.” Like a pick casting forward across a specific stretch of ground.
I lay down a line of words.