I’m stuck on this thing I’ve been writing.
That’s not an excuse, it’s just the way it is. It’s a piece of fiction, drawn heavily from my own experience, and I’ve been chipping away at it for so long that I’m embarrassed to say.
Ok, fifteen years. Fifteen years, you guys!
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. I had a few kids, moved a few times, wrote other things, painted a little, mostly to avoid writing. Mixed in there was work and a few deaths and…well, I have my reasons. But lately I’ve been back at work on it, only, after so long, it barely makes sense to me anymore. Although I’m attached to the characters, and I like some of the story, I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, and that’s driving me nuts. A mentor of mine keeps saying not to worry about that, but I can’t help it.
OK, I’ll only admit this here: I want a guarantee that it will be at least a little good. No one gets that guarantee, of course, and that’s what has made me leave it in a drawer for long stretches of time, sometimes years. After reading that crazy tidying-up book, I went on a binging binge. I found the files on my computer labelled STORY, and dragged them into the trash. I took the box of notes, handwritten pages and chapters I’d printed out, and dumped them in the compost. Then I pulled them out. Finally, I left them, smeared with coffee grounds, on the floor under my desk and waited for the nerve to cut the cord (and my losses) and move on.
Then this happened:
My friend Wendy asked if I could come over and help make some decorations for a big event at our UU church. I said sure, and was looking forward to spending an afternoon crafting it up, cutting and stringing and doing whatever else she told me to do. A few other women would be there, and the three of them would most certainly be on to something amazing, I thought. These three together remind me of those witches from Sleeping Beauty, only more badass, with power tools and oil paint. They are artists. Magicians, in a way, or at least that’s how I think of them. They just seem to know how to make the ordinary beautiful. I was happy to be their lowly helper for the afternoon, in whatever they were cooking up.
I was a little surprised when I got there and in her driveway was, to use an expression that I really hate but sometimes fits the bill— a hot mess. There were huge pieces of paper, recycled something or other, splashed with opaque watercolors and smeared, preschool style, with some glitter thrown in there. My friends were circling their work with brows furrowed, swooshing brushes over it in wide arcs. Wendy got an idea and came back from the depths of her garage with a big box of still more paper—patterns, mismatched, some awesome and retro, some downright hideous. The other two brightened.
“Should we splash those too?”
“Yes. Uniformity!” They began the same process with the paint, the splattering and laughing. When the wind began to blow them away, Wendy insisted we could just chase them down when we were all done, but then ran away and came back with an armful of gigantic homemade hula hoops, to weigh the papers down. (Duh.)
“Who set their paint bottle down here?” Jill asked. It’s true, someone had left dark purple ring on the paper. Uh-oh, I thought, that can’t be good.
“Oh, that was me,” Dena answered, sweeping her brush over a puddle of fuchsia.
Jill smiled wide. “I like it!”
When the wind died down, we stopped and hula hooped for a spell. You know, like you do. We worked up a good sweat.
After the paper dried, we went inside and tried to un-purple our hands, but it was no use. A few ginger snaps later, we sat at the kitchen table and we cut. We folded. We talked about politics and sex and movies. Looking around, I saw our mess evolving into something, not exactly great, but not so bad, either. And then, gradually, into something pretty, with hints of fucking brilliance! How did it happen?
“If I had been doing this by myself, I would have given up a long time ago,” I said, folding and snipping the painted paper, careful to sweep scraps into a bag by my feet. “I would have burned it in the driveway, when it was so ugly.”
“No, that’s when you have to keep going,” Jill said, looking over her glasses at me. The other two laughed a little (laughter might be their secret ingredient), and kept snipping.
“I want to burn everything I make at least once in the process,” Wendy added.
“Really??” This, I couldn’t believe. Even though I’d only seen her finished products, the drawings, decorated cakes, jewelry, clothes, rugs, gardens, and meals, art just seemed to grow around Wendy like weeds, uncultivated and effortless.
Dena pointed her rusty scissors in my direction. “It doesn’t matter what you’re working on, at some point you’ll think it’s shit. But you keep layering. Or taking away. Or whatever. Eventually it takes shape.”
They nodded, knowing just what she meant, and went on to talk about something else.
Over the course of a few hours, that pile of trash in the driveway became something more. Something beautiful and useful. A gift. And those women, who I had decided belonged to a coven of the gifted and talented, revealed themselves to be, also, much more: They were hard working makers, who had the same doubts as me, but trusted the process more.
I got the message.
On my way out, that afternoon, Wendy called to me, “Take a hula hoop with you!” I did, of course. But she gave me else. She gave me a blessing, without even knowing it, and it was this: You’ll want to burn it, we all do. Don’t. Take a breath and a hula-hoop break. Get messy, use your mistakes, and above all, keep on going.
7 thoughts on “(don’t) Burn This”
I am said “Dena, with the rusty scissors” I stand by my statement. Usually for the first few moments/hours/days of my projects I think they are shit. There is always a split second when I realize – hey, not bad ! It’s then I can continue and turn that tiny spark into a flame of goodness – sometimes beauty – sometimes okayness but usually you can shine the turd with your attention and maybe a skewing of perception. I am only just beginning to know Maggie but I Do know this – girl, we have to raise you up because you are the artist- you are the creative one and you are the writer extrodinaire – so put up your wand and repeat after me —–
Which in an odd turn of events I have said once already today!
Thank you for your portrayal of me – it feels so good to be reminded of my artistry. You know Miss Maggie self doubt is a very universal artists way! We’re all in this boat together!
Please keep up the posts I loved this more than I can say!
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First, I loved reading your blog. Your voice SINGS on the page/screen. Please don’t stop sharing. We need your stories.
And then there’s this: I’m a writer-y kind of person who faces being STUCK more often than I care to admit. (And if you listen to me, I admit it/complain about it ALL THE TIME–And I feel stuck even more often than that!)
A few years ago, I was SO TOTALLY STUCK and I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I hit the wall. Hard. Splat. And there was no movement. And I panicked. Was this really the end of that dream? Was I really NOT going to be a writer after all? I looked around my desk and there were a few art books mixed in with the books about writing. Now, I should tell you that being a writer was something I could imagine. But being a visual artist? No way! However, I had these books…
So I reached out to an online art teacher I admired. (I thought her style was cool and I had a few of her books in one of the many piles of books surrounding my desk.) And I took a couple of her self-study classes. (No real commitment. And truthfully, I watched the video lessons and imagined doing them. Did I ever pick up a paintbrush? Well…)
And then I took a year-long class with her (and another wildly crazy teacher.) And the lessons scared me. I mean, they were WAY outside of my comfort zone. Mixed media art? Collage work?
I watched the lessons faithfully and every time–EVERY TIME!–I broke into sweat. The teachers were great masters of being vulnerable in front of the camera. They would begin a piece LIVE. Sure, they were the teachers. They knew their materials. They had a plan. But… They didn’t know HOW it was going to turn out.
And you know what? Every time they began a piece–EVERY TIME!–they hit a point where the piece was not working. I mean REALLY not working. Like a hang-you-head-in-shame-and-turn-off-the-camera-and-have-a-cry kind of not working.
BU… they never let that stop them. “It’s only a layer.” Both of them said that phrase. It was like a magical incantation. It’s only a layer. We can add more. We can scrub/cut something away.
And every time–EVERY TIME!–I got a little misty-eyed. Because that was what I needed to hear. (While I enjoyed the art lessons, I really resonated with their creative process, their vulnerability, their willingness to hit a wall in front of us and their ability to remain calm and repeat that phrase: IT’S ONLY A LAYER.
When I read your story, I grinned so hard that it hurt my cheeks. I know what your friends said is the truth! And they are reminding you of something you already know: IT’S ONLY A LAYER. (And how lucky that you live so close to them. I know them and love them and miss them more than you can ever know!)
As writers, we put marks on page, hoping they convey what it is that we hear inside our heads. And when we take a step back and reread them, it can be so very disappointing. But it’s only a layer. We can cut. We can add. We can polish.
But we can’t do anything if the page stays blank.
And it’s no different for the visual artists. They hope to bring that vision they see in their minds to the page or the canvas (or the television sound stage). And they work and sweat just like us. And they are disappointed–even if only for just a moment–because what they’ve created DIDN’T match up with what they’d created in their minds.
They continue to work because they know it’s only a layer. And they don’t stop. They keep going.
And we can, too.
I know it.
Because you’re really, really good.
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Hi Jason! Thank you so much for reading, but most especially for taking the time to write such a wonderful story in response. I could listen all day to stories like this. So encouraging to remember that we are far from alone, right? I agree, I’m super lucky that I get to hang out with these women and learn by osmosis. Thank you again for checking out what I’m working on. I have mixed feelings about blogging. The only thing I can compare it to is walking into a cocktail party (to which you were not invited), naked. It feel just like what I imagine that would feel like, so I truly appreciate your kind words. Aloha 😉
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YES to your analogy: blogging = feeling like you’re walking into a cocktail party…
And it’s good practice.
Crying right now. Thanks for being an inspiration and for showing the mess. These women you speak of, they are magicians. And I am honored to know you and to witness your magic, and grateful to be able to share in their magic through your eyes.
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Thanks Nanc. We miss you so much ❤
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