A few nights ago I met a friend for soup, sandwiches, and an amazing lemon crepe before we headed to a poetry reading. “How is your writing going?” I asked Naila, who replied that her novel had a plot and plenty of words but some music was lacking. She said she felt stuck, remembering other peoples’ great novels that seemed to have sung and stuck with her.
The next night I picked up In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, which is about learning to write in Italian, a language she didn’t grow up with, and how that meant accepting imperfection. She quotes Carlos Fuentes: “It’s extremely useful to know that there are certain heights one will never be able to reach.” Jhumpa Lahiri writes about working in a language she’ll never get right, managing the anxiety that creates, and how awareness of impossibility is part of the creative impulse because it makes you marvel, which is one reason we write books. She talks about this in an NPR interview, too. “It’s an ideal that I’m moving toward. You know, the closer you get, the farther away it gets. But I think, isn’t that the point of creativity, to keep searching?”
Now I’m reading Katherine Towler’s lovely The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship, which is partly an account of the last years of a poet who was her neighbor and an account of her own writing process, which means moving between solitude and company, rare satisfaction with her work and trying again. Katherine Towler tells of often looking out a pond that changes with the tides, and is beautiful whether it’s water or mud flats. Early in the book, the poet of the title, Robert Dunn, asks her, as I asked Naila, “How is your writing going?” And when she expresses frustration with how long it takes, though she knows herself as a slow writer, he counsels that whatever the writer tries or wants, the writing takes its own time.
Work in progress can seem like that tidal pond, coming and going, but it can be hard for us to see it as beautiful in all its guises, as Katherine Towler saw the mud and water. She calls the process of writing a novel “a step forward and a step back, rewriting the same scenes over and over until I made myself believe them.” Finding a place between where we are and where we want to be, between anxiety and marveling: that is our task.