I want to be good. At writing. This is a problem. Writing doesn’t come from wanting. Wanting is crazy making. Wanting is watching each demon strut across the computer screen, wag her cocky tail and pee in the corner.
In the mid ‘90s I took a writing workshop in Vancouver from a teacher I had worked with in New Mexico. I was between jobs at the time and thought a lot about trying to earn a living as a writer. The teacher and I went for dinner one night at a diner in the neighborhood. I wanted to pick Joan’s brain about writing. Mostly I wanted to hear her tell me it was a great idea, that I could do it. In my fantasy I had hatched a plan: I write for awhile, get a few things published, and wah-lah, I’m discovered. Isn’t that what happens? Ya, right.
So Joan and I are talking and when she hears the part about writing for a living, she sets down her fork and carefully swallows what’s in her mouth. Thinking about it now, I’m grateful she didn’t spew her half-chewed food across the table. Joan is a calm person with a kind soul. She’s a poet, and a good listener. I remember she rested her elbows on the table, folded her hands and said, “Just don’t try to be good. You already are.”
I flew back to Denver on cloud nine, chasing the tail of a dream. I started a new routine. I’d get Ali off to kindergarten, bike to the Newsstand Cafe on Washington, buy my coffee, sit at the counter facing Sixth Avenue, and write. Hemingway said writing amounts to putting down one good word after another. Anyone who’s tried it knows how hard it can be to find a good word.
What I figured out as the weeks went by and the angst set in is that Joan was talking about the grip of wanting. Wanting to be a writer. Wanting to be published. Trying too hard. Trying, like wanting, is a function of the ego. Trying has nothing to do with producing a decent sentence. Writing is what happens when we get out of the way. Trying in the creative sense is like gunning the engine when you’re stuck in snow. The tires spin but you go nowhere.
I start a fresh page and three lines later, the crow is on my shoulder: OK, write something brilliant. This better be good. What do you have to say anyway, and who’s going to read it? This is shit. You and I both know it. You might as well put down the pen and save the trees.
I write four more lines, read them, and draw a large X over the paragraph. I remind myself there is no gun to my head. I have made this choice. I am the crazy one. And then I remember the first line of a poem by Mary Oliver: You do not have to be good. It’s a gem. Let’s end with her words instead of mine.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
— Mary Oliver