My experience of the creative process is one that is often painful, perhaps because I’ve spent much of my life producing writing that falls short of what I see in my mind and feel in my heart.
The curse of writing is the compulsion to do it; it compels me to continue to strain and struggle to take something that exists in such Platonic perfection and translate it through the muck and mire of my brain and experience. The curse is also that feeling I get, deep in the belly, when what I tried to write comes out in a way that is strained, contrived, dull, or cliched. It’s like looking for something familiar in the fog; you know where you’re going, but can’t see it or how to get there. That feeling of being maddeningly far from your destination while knowing exactly where you want to be can generate a feeling I can only describe as despair.
Heres’s an example from “A Heart Blown Open”. In an earlier draft, I had ended a powerful scene like this:
Twenty years later he saw Silvia working as a bank teller and she seemed, in her conservative pantsuit, as far removed from the magic of the 1960’s as if that had been in another lifetime. Kelly certainly was changed from the mid-1960’s, the last time she had seen him. He was wearing the modest clothes of a Zen priest, his head and face cleanly shaven. Only his eyes might have seemed the same or given some indication of the man she had once known. But their eyes had never met, and Kelly had done his banking and been on his way. Some things, he knew, were best left in the past, where their magic remained forever undisturbed by the passage of time and the changing of perspective.
Word came to him a few years later that Silvia had lost a battle with cancer, and that her unique expression of humanity had returned to the source. He sat with the news, thinking about how she had saved his life and his sanity, and realized that although he hadn’t seen her in 20 years, he would miss her terribly.
The passage above made me wince every time I read it. It was so far from what I saw in my mind as this passage played out; I felt Kelly’s heartbreak as if it were my own, and knew it was something that touched at the very core of what it meant to be a human being. There was a universality to this experience that I had utterly failed to capture, and it was maddening. Because of the discomfort between what I felt and what I had written, I labored on this paragraph stubbornly and relentlessly, sculpting and fine-tuning until I came up with something a little closer to that Platonic perfection:
After that night, Kelly and Silvia’s paths crossed less and less, and by the late sixties he had lost touch with her completely. In 1982 he went into a bank in San Francisco to withdraw cash and was astonished to see Silvia standing behind the counter in a conservative pantsuit working as a bank teller. Her hair, once magnificently long and as dark as a starless patch of the night sky, was short and graying. He looked at her for a long moment.
Kelly too was much changed from the days of a shaggy beard and shoulder-length hair, and only his eyes might have given some indication of the man Silvia had known so many years before. Yet their eyes never crossed, and Kelly did his banking and left. As he stepped out into the gorgeous California morning, he knew that some things were best left in the past, where their magic remained forever undisturbed by the disillusioning passage of time and the changing of perspectives. Silvia and Kelly’s bond belonged in another era, in a different world whose time had come, and gone.
Word came to him a few years later that Silvia lost a battle with cancer. He sat with the news of her passing, remembering how she had saved his life and his sanity, and felt the depth of sadness in a world where nothing could be held and where everything slid inexorably, and inevitably, to ruin.
When I finally got these words to come through me, I felt the magic of what I do for a living. I had managed to steer myself out of the fog and to that perfect dwelling sitting right in the center of my being; the words came tantalizingly close to capturing an Ideal. For that day, at least, magic had won.
Whether I experience writing as a curse or something magical largely depends on the day, the weather, the stars, my karma, God’s will, or some other vector that I don’t seem to be able to capture, manipulate, understand, or control very effectively. So I slug through it day after day, and let passages like this one inspire the many other passages that have me gritting my teeth in frustration. Perhaps this is why we writers are stubborn, reclusive folks. Perhaps, too, this is the very thing that stands in our way. Either way, the compulsion to write beats its relentless rhyme inside of me.