Inspired by the 2015 Key West Literary Seminar, I’ve been thinking about these Leonard Cohen lyrics for months now. So few literary attempts ever achieve perfection! The Shakespeares among us are rare. Most of us are embarked on foolish, impossible, and yet strangely and ultimately worthwhile projects. “What matters most in our lives is unsayable,” Mark Doty said. “We’ve got to attempt to make meaning… Of course it’s impossible, but if we don’t, we despair.”
The most committed writer who dedicates years to the evolution of her manuscript, who is thorough in her research and who receives the best editorial support, will nonetheless overlook a clumsy sentence, a spelling error, a nuance of character, and a political implication. She will hurt a family member’s feelings. She will perpetuate an inaccurate stereotype. Her book, even if lauded and applauded, will in places make her wince.
Writers–and all of us–must live into a paradox: While striving for perfection we must accept brokenness. Especially as we reach completion with a project, we have to work like hell to fix what we can and find peace with our inevitable failure.
Stories take the sharp fragments of human experience and make of them a whole. They don’t fix wrongs, they don’t solve problems, they don’t offer false hope; they simply hold together what we human beings cannot. Kintsugi is the Japanese art of fixing pottery with gold lacquer; breakage and repair are understood to be a part of the object’s history and therefore beautiful. Story-making is a form of kintsugi. The cracks contribute to an aesthetic whole.
But when I find flaws in my writing, I don’t see any light getting in. And when someone else lambasts my work, all I see are shortcomings. I’m tempted to reenter the perfection trap, where only “good enough” work belongs in the world or is worthy of being written. Worse yet, I’m tempted to assume the inadequacy of my writing reflects my own inadequacies: I don’t belong here, either. When Mark Doty’s sister read his memoir she told him, “Well, the things that you got wrong just made it more you.” Ouch.
The funny thing is that, wrong as we are, we do belong here, and wrong as our work may be, it belongs as well. Everything is cracked, and everything is beautiful. We must “forget our perfect offering” so we can “ring the bells that still can ring.” That’s how the light gets in. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Upcoming events and classes:
April 23, 7 p.m., Wine & Writing: The Inner Life of Books, a conversation with P. S. Duffy at The Crossings of Zumbrota, MN.
April 27, 6:30-8:30 p.m.: Free reading, signing, and conversation, The Loft ~ Bachrach Building, 318 Central Avenue, Faribault, MN.
May 7, 7 p.m., Listen To Your Mother, Riverview Theater, Minneapolis, MN.
June 15-19: Alone Together: Write That Book retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts. DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS EXTENDED TO 4/15/15.
Save the date: “Revision Revolution: Bringing Insight and Delight into Revision” retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts, September 12-16, 2016.