Perhaps the kindest—and most instructive—comment I’ve ever received from a reviewer came from Mary Rose O’Reilly, author of The Barn at the End of the World: “I can imagine that [Elizabeth] has spent many hours staring out the window until she arrives at a lived-synthesis of what the great religions and irreligions have to tell us about the nature of the sacred.” I don’t know about the synthesis, but I can attest to the hours staring out the window. And hours writing and then deleting what I’ve written. And hours journaling for no eye other than my own. And years revising.
“Art is long,” wrote Henry James. “If we work for ourselves of course we must hurry. If we work for her we must often pause.” Today I’m writing a blog post, that form most conducive to contemporary culture’s need for instant gratification. I’m as easily seduced as the next blogger by the possibility that in an hour or two these reflections might rattle around in your brain. But I also know the profound, evolutionary movement of a longer project, where readership is a vague unknown, a decade isn’t an unreasonable time frame, and the exploratory possibilities seem endless. Henry James makes this sound noble—we’re serving Art!—but for most of us uncertainty about the artistic nature of our work packs those years and all those pauses with angst. Better to be done with it, get a dozen “likes” on Facebook or reviews on Amazon, and feel validated in our efforts.
Given the ever-increasing speed of our culture, I’m beginning to think that any work that forces us to pause, to gaze out the window, to trust the secret recesses of our subconscious to arrive at “lived syntheses,” is increasingly valuable. Art is long, but so is growing asparagus and learning to bake a good soufflé and meditating and biking to the grocery store. When my writing clients despair of ever being done with their books, I sympathize—it’s hard not to be done!—and I rejoice in projects so worthy and rich that they demand great chunks of our lives.
Significant creation asks us to surrender to time—to release our needs for completion and affirmation and inhabit a process that rarely unfolds the way we’d like. As uncomfortable as this makes me, I’m also certain that little else is as worthwhile.
Join me for a week of rest, writing, and reflection on Madeline Island at the end of this month—Where A Life Meets Mystery: Spiritual Memoir, July 28-August 1st.
Belly dancing, readings from Hannah, Delivered, and reflections on how novel writing impacts a writer’s spiritual life, at Hennepin Reads, July 15 at 7 p.m.