A book composed in her head but not yet written, Ann Patchett says, is like an oversized butterfly of indescribable beauty, “so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life.” Ah, yes. Isn’t this the tremendous joy of an idea? Who doesn’t love the pleasurable secrecy an unformed creation?
And then we begin.
“When putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it,” Patchett writes, “I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”
Ugh. When Patchett tells this to audiences, they laugh. They assume she’s joking. But anyone who writes regularly knows she’s deadly honest. This ability to withstand the disappointment, humility, and grief at the inevitable brokenness of our writing is what distinguishes real writers from those who simply want to write. “Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.” Margaret Atwood calls this reverse incarnation, the flesh made word. The endeavor is doomed from the start. Life on the page will always pale in comparison to vibrant life in the flesh.
The key to enduring, as an artist and as a human, is learning how to “weather the death” of that butterfly and forgive ourselves for it. “I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.” We are always less intelligent or creative or precise or wise than we want to be, and doubly so on the page. I’m grateful for Ann Patchett’s insight, that forgiving ourselves and proceeding regardless is a fundamental part of living fully, and writing well. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Quotes are from Ann Patchett’s “The Getaway Car,” in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, HarperCollins, NY 2013.
Here’s my most recent issue of Pen Feathers, my occasional newsletter: Revision—A Laughing Matter.
All you writers of spiritual memoir out there: Here’s a great chance to get an introduction to the genre and connect with other writers. I’m offering a Saturday workshop, Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art & Practice of Spiritual Memoir, at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality on September 26, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. We’ll follow this with monthly drop-in classes for anyone who wants to deepen their work with memoir–October 16, November 20, December 18, 1:30-3:30 p.m.
Join me for a romp through the joys of revision! In the morning of October 31, I’m teaching a Revision Revolution workshop at The Loft Literary Center.