Deb:Time, Risk, and Writing

Writers are not just
people who sit down and write.  They hazard themselves.  Every time
you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake.  ~E.L.
The stately clock has been with us for years. When we moved,
we transported it as carefully as we had when we first brought it home, even
though it had never once while in our possession ticked off a single second. At the
new house, we found a stashed key and finally delivered it to the local clock
shop for repair.
Today we started it up precisely at 11:49, the moment at which it had long ago ceased tracking
time. The pendulum now ticks and tocks, beating a rhythm all but forgotten in our
digital age, a reminder of time passing, passing, passing.
Time is a tough foe. We race with it, beat ourselves up over
it, lose ourselves in it. In the end, time always prevails. Writing, an
inefficient pursuit at best, is especially at odds with time. As a New Year looms,
full of promise, we can’t resist looking back at all we failed to
accomplish – the unfinished manuscript, the imperfect poem, the unanswered
But writing, as Doctorow points out, is no mere way of passing
the time. It is an endeavor that entails large risks, risks that call your very
sense of self into question.
“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page
a little that you establish contact with your reader,” said Paul Gallico back
in 1946. “If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at
that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and
excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it
sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent
money besides writing bad or phony stories.”
Real writing, the hazardous, vein-opening kind, is at odds
with our schedule-happy, competitive, productivity-obsessed modern age. Revision is especially so. In her essay “Waiting and
Silence,” Susan Snively notes that Franz Kafka kept a sign above his desk that
said simply “Wait.” A writer’s completion of a first draft, Snively says, is
“the most exhilarating, and therefore treacherous, moment,” because we are all
too eager to show our unpolished work to the world.
The ticking of my clock is a gift, a reminder that as a
writer, I’m privileged to step beyond time. In my stories, I can mold it as I
choose. I can take immeasurable risks without leaving my chair. I can stop
time, waiting until a piece rights itself, following the example of poet
Elizabeth Bishop, who would leave gaps in her drafts where she lacked the right
words, waiting patiently for them to reveal themselves. “Her refusal to hurry a
poem was, among other things,” Snively says, “a way to say that the poem’s
special life had to be honored above her own need for closure or publication.”
The swinging pendulum of our newly-refurbished clock serves
as a steady reminder that the passion for truth trumps the march of minutes and
hours every time. In this season of joy and reflection, may we be fierce with
determination, unflinching with risks, and generous with ourselves.  
Try This:  As a remedy for the idea that writing must be
about ideas, Sydney Lea suggests that in your daily journal you note, with
minimal explanation or editorializing, things that stop you in your tracks. “Aprioristic
ideas make for writing of no vigor,” says Lea. Instead, write from your
seemingly unconnected time-stoppers. What you’ll discover, Lea promises, is
personal idiom and a range of previously unarticulated emotional truths.
Check This Out: Lea’s
exercise is one of over ninety in The Practice of Poetry, a thoughtful
collection that enlightens even the non-poets among us

4 thoughts on “Deb:Time, Risk, and Writing”

  1. The Doctorow quote rings true for me: "Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake." People who don't write may not realize the personal risk that goes into the process–not only the risk that others will not like your writing, or that they will meanly belittle you for it, but more importantly the risk that it may change you in unexpected ways. But the beauty of writing risk is that it can go the other way, too–others may like or even love your writing, and more importantly it may change you for the better. The self reflection that the writing process requires may not always be fun but it has a high potential of being good for the end user, that is, the writer himself or herself.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Loved the Doctorow quote and the entire post. Appropriate words for facing yet another new year in the sustained, awkward state of uncertainty and anticipation that seems to be the writer's fate.

  3. This is a wonderful quote and wish:
    "May we be fierce with determination, unflinching with risks, and generous with ourselves." Thank you.

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