I’m not one to go around citing scripture, but I was moved to tears when our president did on Thursday.
Scripture tells us to run with endurance the race that is set before us.
He waited a moment, then recited the passage a second time.
Run with endurance the race that is set before us.
I arrive at Tattered Cover ahead of Dana for our Friday afternoon writing date, and wander the main floor. I land in an upholstered chair in the psychology section, facing thousands of titles stacked floor to ceiling: It Gets Better, God Wears Lipstick, Hold Me Tight, The Power of Now.
Twenty-some years ago a woman I had met in a journaling class suggested I write a book about raising Ali, who was three at the time. The woman was serious, I was flattered. I filled dozens of journals but never wrote the book. The time—what little I had for writing—wasn’t right. Single parenting, earning a living, building a house to accommodate a wheelchair, a sick mother, a depressed father, a new marriage, two more children, fear, lack of confidence, exhaustion, who would read it anyway, and really, it’s not like the world needs another memoir.
Three weeks ago. Madie has an extra ticket to Ann Patchett and off we go: front row mezzanine at the Newman Center. Patchett walks on stage to enthusiastic applause, her stride confident, not a note in her hand. She’s in a brown print dress that hits her leg just above the knee, sporting a pageboy and wearing what my mother would have called sensible shoes. She’s casual and friendly and I start to feel like a neighbor who popped in for a glass of wine on a Friday night. She tells stories. We laugh. She makes fun of herself and her husband’s neurosurgeon colleagues. She drops names and calls herself on it. “People don’t get how difficult writing is,” she says in a moment of seriousness. “They don’t get that writing is what I do. They treat the work like it isn’t a real job.”
The tales continue, about her writer friends, her Nashville bookstore, her imperfect marriage, and how hard writing can be. Patchett imagines her books first, for a year, sometimes two. She creates in her head the most exquisite scenario, characters, and plot line she can imagine, and only when not writing the story becomes more painful than the actual writing does she stop the head trip and begin.
“And then,” she says (and I paraphrase here), “this masterpiece I have imagined down to the minutest detail begins to appear on the page in all its ugliness, in the barest, dullest of forms, with none of the grace and eloquence I had imagined.
“And I have to forgive myself once again, for there is no way I can write what I have imagined, no way I can capture the creation in its original perfection. All I can do is to write the story as well as I possibly can, and then forgive myself for it not being as magnificent as the story I had created in my head.”
And then she said, “We writers have lots of opportunities to forgive ourselves.”
At that moment, more than envying her, even more than wanting to BE her, I want the wise Ann Patchett for a friend. I want to sit with her on the patio at Daz Bog, our hands cupped around steaming mugs of tea, and share the angst of getting started, the disappointing first drafts, the courage it takes to stick with it, and what it feels like to forgive ourselves.
In the days and weeks following Patchett’s talk, I set aside my love-hate relationship with writing—and the guilt I carry for not publishing a post in more than five months—and get to work. I type page after page of useless dribble. I consider if it wouldn’t just be easier to slash my wrists and get it over with. If Ann Patchett struggles—author of five novels, two works of nonfiction, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize, the BookSense Book of the Year, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award—oh, and did I mention Bel Canto has been translated into 30 languages and another book is coming out in the fall—what am I doing… struggling alongside HER?! Seems more than a tad presumptuous. Preposterous comes to mind.
And yet this much I know: I have a story to tell. Twenty-five years ago I was handed a child who would test my endurance and challenge my stamina; who would require me tough as nails one minute and vulnerable as a spring blossom in a snowstorm the next; who would ask that I set aside that most fragile of beasts, the human ego, and give more; who would send me to the streets in search of relief, only to discover that no amount of running could chase away the hurt. Not once would these things be done, but over and over until the day, a couple of decades later, I would pack her things and carry them across the street into a house where she would live without me.
Two things saved me: I connected with the grittiest, strongest love that filled my heart, and I filled those journals. The only way out was through, and to get me through, I loved and I wrote.
Run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Life never allots just one race, but at this moment, on this afternoon in April, the race is the book, and I’m in training.