We originally published this post on March 7, 2012
It’s about 11 am, and I already have several things to forgive myself for.
I intended to get cracking on a novel revision by 9 am. (First draft completed on Dec 31, and two months later, I still haven’t finished even the first round of editing I intend to do before letting the project sit again for a few months, pending solicited critiques and further, deeper revisions.) Instead, I read email, including a request for some Alaska photos to accompany an article I wrote for another website. What should that take, 5 minutes?
Nearly an hour later, I’ve finally found a handful that might do. Digging into the old online folders, I found myself looking at images that have nothing to do with work– hiking photos like the one above (will summer ever come again? so beautiful!), pictures of my kids when they were younger (look at those sweet, un-self-conscious, pre-adolescent smiles–how I miss those days), and at myself just two and three years ago. (There are those jeans I can’t fit into at all now, despite endless trips to the gym and several diets. What the hell happened? To make things worse, I recently injured my hip and have had to stop running and skiing, my favorite stress-relief activities. Argh!)
Yes, I actually leave my desk to go weigh myself. The number on the scale does nothing to cheer me.
And so on, down into a spiral of distraction, started by a genuine work request, but ending in sweet contemplations of times past and sorrowful self-recriminations about times present.
Never mind the twenty minutes spent washing some pots and pans that could have waited, because I really wanted to listen to a little more political coverage on NPR.
There’s lots on the agenda today: freelance work already paid for but not wrapped up, new work in the pipeline, emails, a reading assignment, teaching prep, all the typical errands, and–oh yes–even a little bit of creative work, if I haven’t blown it. Have I already blown it? I get so mad at myself, sometimes!
Here’s some wisdom from Eric Maisel, author of Coaching the Artist Within, an inspirational book I discovered last month. “Every day is a day to restore hope. … Your self-coaching persona must get in the first word each morning: ‘I have hope for this day.’”
Well, I had hope for this day. But no (my newly employed self-coach says): forgive and get over it.
Does this seem like too petty a context for using the word “forgiveness”?
My recently published novel, The Detour, takes place in 1938 Germany and Italy, and includes mention of Dachau concentration camp. Online and in interviews, I’ve already got into some thorny discussions and debates about the Holocaust, political guilt, complicity, and forgiveness — on the big scale.
My new novel project, tentatively titled “Annie and The Wolves,” is about sexual abuse and revenge — or rather, the impossibility of revenge. That too, encompasses some sensitive discussions about forgiveness. (My two main characters are more interested in shootin’ than forgivin’.)
For most of my life, I’ve tended to think about forgiveness at that level. Lingering trauma. Potentially unforgivable actions.
This year, with two teens in the house–including one itching to leave the nest–I started thinking more about smaller examples of forgiveness. Trying to forgive them for their everyday, normal teen transgressions (lack of gratitude, basic adolescent self-absorption) wasn’t getting me anywhere. Then I started thinking about forgiving myself. I’m not a perfect parent, it should go without saying (though my kids seem to think it is worth saying). I can be too sensitive and, on a daily basis, I feel my patience dwindling. I had gotten to a point where I was actually less aggravated at my own kids than at myself, for not responding to them in the way I know a parent should: with an almost oblivious sense of serene, compassionate authority. Forgiving them wasn’t really the point at all. It was more about forgiving myself, so I could start each new day with a clean slate, and try to be a better parent. Again.
Eric Maisel’s book took this subject a step further, into a realm I hadn’t considered before: the role of forgiveness in a creative life. On a daily basis.
Maisel writes: “Every day you will need to reflect on your life and chart your course. Every day you will have to renew the pact you made with yourself to act as if you matter. Every day you will need to forgive yourself and others to release your pent-up pain and disappointment. Every day you will need to surrender to the facts of existence while doing your damnedest to realize your dreams.”
My self-forgiveness list isn’t just about wasting a few hours here or there, mind you. It’s also about forgiving myself for not being a better writer, period. For having taken too long to get to this place. For not doing what it takes. For worrying too much. For envying the success of others. For not appreciating my own success. For letting the errors and the typos and the clichés creep in. For publishing too soon. For not publishing soon enough. For failing to listen. For talking too fast. For taking too long to mail that thank-you letter or respond to that reader. For not taking enough risks. For taking so many risks I’ve at times imperiled my health and my basic security. For caring too much about security. For being afraid.
Last night, I happened to read a wonderful essay by Jonathan Franzen called “Scavenging,” in his collection, How to Be Alone. Written in 1996, five years before Franzen’s fame for The Corrections, it captures the despondent voice of a gutsy but exhausted young writer living on a “four-figure income” and at the end of his rope, fed up with his graduate students (“who can’t distinguish between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ and have never read Jane Austen”), older readers (“distracted and demoralized”), younger readers (“bred on television”), society at large (hooked on Prozac) and many other overlapping categories of people. Really, of course, Franzen was mostly fed up with himself. He was depressed. He was struggling as a writer. He had things to say but at that time, he was not the Writer he wanted to be, not the kind of person whose commentary would be read and heard (and certainly not the Writer who would later win the National Book Award and end up on the cover of Time Magazine).
At his lowest point, Franzen writes, “I gave up. Just gave up. No matter what it cost me, I didn’t want to be unhappy anymore. And so I stopped trying to be a writer-with-a-capital-W. Just to desire to get up in the morning was all I asked.”
Which is not to say he gave up writing: a best guess, based on other timeline clues in the essay, is that his second novel, Strong Motion, had been out for maybe a year. Though his personal life was a wreck, he was just beginning The Corrections, a novel in which he would depart from his original post-modern style and write something more grounded in realism, and also closer to his heart. In the mid-90s, Franzen began to see writing as a salvage operation. After hitting bottom, he was ready to accept fiction as refuge, rather than as a way to make grand social change (or to find success on a grand scale).
At the end of his “Salvage” essay, Franzen is rescuing a chair from a garbage heap, watched by a student who asks, “This is what my life will be like if I write fiction?” Franzen isn’t just rescuing broken furniture, of course. He is rescuing himself, ready at least to take things day by day, to move on. Franzen writes, “After years of depression, I didn’t care how forgiving of myself I sounded.” And also: “I prefer to live among the scavenged and the reborn.”
Seize the day. I always liked the sound of that. But perhaps, borrowing from Franzen’s essay title, Salvage the day is more fitting for most of us, most of the time. We have much to regret from our past– serious things and silly things. We may have something to regret just in the last few hours. I know I do.
Look at that — almost lunchtime. But lunch can wait. Still some time to copyedit 30 or 40 pages, and to do some tough revision on at least one scene before turning to all those other less-creative tasks that must get done.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and the author of Behave. Her next novel, set in Asia in the years 1934 and 2029, will be published in 2018. Meanwhile she is writing two nonfiction books, including a memoir about running public lands in all 50 U.S. states during a year in which she grappled with mid-life health and aging issues.