Over the past few months I’ve been mulling over the writer’s version of the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” Does a developed, completed creative project that remains unread still exert an influence on the world? This might seem like a Zen koan, an unanswerable question, or a waste of time. But I think it points directly at the heart of why writers write and why great literature makes a lasting impact on us.
I posed this question in my newsletter and received some thought-provoking responses. Over the next few months I’d like to share their stories. (Please send me yours!) The first is from Erika Alin, who completed a childhood memoir after many years of work.
The unpublished memoir definitely exerts a subtle but important influence on me. While I do think it’s possible to disentangle the impact of the writing process from that of the final unpublished product as such, the continued influence of the completed memoir on me comes largely from the concrete manifestation the work provides of the significant transformation the actual writing of it brought. Revising the manuscript through multiple drafts until it reached a point of what (at the time) felt like resolution and wholeness gave me a finished product that, even though it doesn’t exist in any tangible or printed form, still seems to exist within my deeper being as an implicit reference point and even subtle source of direction.
Isn’t this remarkable? The physical fact of the book is evidence of an invisible, internal reference point and directional source—a loadstone. Erika goes on to describe how it functions.
In its completed form, the work has come to embody the profound sense of personal deepening and transformation that I experienced during the years I spent engaged in the writing process. In the years since I completed it, on several occasions when I’ve found it hard to sustain faith in my writing or other creative endeavors, or in life choices that involve devoting significant time to pursuits that may not bear any visible fruit in the outside world, the unpublished book seems to tug at my memory and remind me of the value of sticking with commitments that have the potential to move me in directions of greater openness and growth. In a way, the presence of the work helps to keep my life on course by renewing my commitment to pursuits that have deep personal significance.
…Writing a childhood memoir evoked strong emotions; it was one of the most powerful life experiences I’ve had as an adult. Regardless of their content, these emotions were often accompanied by a deep sense of aliveness and creative inspiration, even elation. That same “spark of inspiration” hadn’t felt as compelling in my previous writing (mostly of natural history essays) or other creative pursuits (or, honestly, in many of my life endeavors more generally). While memoir writing may by its nature evoke especially strong emotions, the clear personal stake and vitality that I experienced during the writing process provided me with a new standard to aspire to in the creation of other work. At times when other projects, or indeed parts of my life, have failed to fully engage me, despite my genuine interest, the memory of that “spark” has motivated me to explore new ways of digging into my subject matter or experience in hopes of finding there that same aliveness and inspiration.
The project showed Erika a fuller, brighter engagement with creative projects and with life. She now owns the possibility of this aliveness and inspiration.
Finally, I’ll just add that while working on the final draft of the memoir I realized that I would have written a very different memoir had I started the writing process at that point (that is, after having nearly finished the work). While the memoir continues to embody a form of resolution and wholeness for me, it somewhat paradoxically also reminds me of how incomplete any final work may end up being, and of the importance of trying to approach all of my writing, creative, and other endeavors with an ongoing sense of exploration and openness. (Whether I actually achieve this is quite a different matter!)
The spark of inspiration that was so bright during the creation of Erika’s book is still burning because she’s still in relationship with it. She references it, she engages it, she allows herself to be transformed by it.
All this transpires because the work is complete. I find this absolutely beautiful, and worth honoring. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, with gratitude to Erika Alin.
It’s back to school time! Lots of good opportunities to learn and grow coming up:
September 14, 1:30-3:30, Re-Imagining Gift, Spiritual Memoir drop-in Session at Wisdom Ways. We like to say that accomplished writers “have the gift.” What if instead of talent the key to effective writing is the writer’s capacity to receive? And what if we reframe the final stage of writing (sharing, publishing) as passing this gift along? We’ll launch our fall spiritual memoir series by tracing the generous, life-giving energy that moves in, through, and beyond the creative process.
September 15, 9:00-12:00, Writing the Sacred Journey, an introduction to spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality. Ever wonder what I mean when I use the terms “spiritual memoir”? Join me for this morning introduction!
October 12, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Prayer with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.
October 27: The Launch: Reimagining Publishing with Integrity, Freedom, and Generosity at the Loft Literary Center, 1:30pm-4:30pm. As writers approach publication, our art becomes a commodity in a market economy—with devastating consequences to our well-being. What might it mean to remain faithful to our creative process, unfolding interior journey, and sense of integrity as we launch our work in a wider world? How do we stay true to what matters most?
November 9, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Loss with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.
November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm. At its core, revision is the work of transformation—of seeing text, and therefore the world, with new eyes. Done well, revision returns writers to their original love for writing and the subject.
December 14, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.
2 thoughts on “The Aliveness of Completed Work”
“concrete manifestation the work provides of the significant transformation” is the key, it seems, and speaks to it being crafted and completed – different than journaling. Whether for the artist’s eyes only or for a wider audience – getting it out of your head and into a book or on stage, in clay – the flow entering you, you receiving then contributing by crafting and completing and then back out into the universe it goes! This post was helpful for me, thank you.
Yay! After misquoting Annie Dillard for YEARS I just found her original words: “A complete novel in a trunk in the attic is an order added to the sum of the universe’s order.” This is different from what I’ve been saying, and I like it better. She calls the processing, the shaping, that you describe, Carolyn, “order.” That’s the implicit sense of moving molecules we were talking about.