When I was a child, my mother worked in clay. I would lie on the couch at night with my head in her lap and stare up at her silhouetted by yellow lamplight while her hands kneaded and pinched figures from nothing. My father brought home reams of paper from his office and I wasted days drawing pictures that never turned out how I wanted, those drawings then crumpled in my six-year-old hands and thrown away. I’d pull another sheet of paper from the stack and start again.
My parents were always confused by how quickly I destroyed something I spent hours creating. In their minds, the work was good, and of course they believed it: I was a child, I was their child, and anything I put my heart into was worthwhile. But what they couldn’t see, and what I couldn’t explain, was that even then I recognized a moment in the creation of art when a mistake has been made and there is no way to fix it. What they didn’t understand was that this recognition doesn’t ebb on sadness and disappointment; rather it rises on the fact that if I do it again and again I might one day do it perfectly.
I was at a reading this past Saturday at City Lights Bookstore and afterward I sat with Pam Duncan, a novelist and friend, and we discussed what each of us are currently writing. I don’t typically have anything I would consider insightful, but a thought came to me then about the novel I’m working on that I think holds some element of truth. I told her that, for me, the first draft of a novel is like digging clay, and that there’s nothing to sculpt until the clay is piled on the table. Once it’s there you can make art, but until then, all you can do is dig, and for the past eight months I’ve been digging.
Despite the truth in that statement, I failed to acknowledge one thing, a lesson I learned belly-down on shag carpet with a pencil and blank paper when I was six years old: not all that is dug is clay.
When I was writing Where All Light Tends To Go, I set fire to about 200 pages, burnt somewhere around 60,000 words, because I realized that I’d gotten the narrator’s voice wrong. I can remember as I stared at that pile of ashes feeling as lonely as I’d ever felt in my life. In the words of Raymond Carver, it was as if I’d never written a word.
After eight months of working on a new novel, I find myself there again. I spent the past month and a half looking at a manuscript that I knew wasn’t right. I stayed up day and night trying to figure out how to fix it, and a part of me kept saying, just dig. Then, as it often does, the answer came in a dream. My eyes flicked open and I was wide-awake at 3:24 this morning: I had yet to hit clay.
When I woke up I felt that same loneliness as I felt before. I had 30,000 useless words, 100 pages of tinder.
Then I got a message from a dear friend who knows this feeling as well as I do. He sent me this quote from Harry Crews: “The amateur, or the coward, or the non-writer, will try to keep it and make it work cause he doesn’t want to have to throw it away and do all of that over again another way. The real artist—with no tear in his eye and no sadness in his heart—puts the pages in the fire and does it again.”
That’s all it took for me to remember that I’d only ever known one way:
Pull another piece of paper from the stack. Dig the clay and, just as I watched mother do, knead and pinch figures from nothing. Do it over and over again for the rest of your fucking life. And one day, if you’re lucky, you just might do it perfectly.