Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake. ~E.L. Doctorow
The stately clock has been with us for years. When we moved, we transported it as carefully as we had when we first brought it home, even though it had never once while in our possession ticked off a single second. At the new house, we found a stashed key and finally delivered it to the local clock shop for repair.
Today we started it up precisely at , the moment at which it had long ago ceased tracking time. The pendulum now ticks and tocks, beating a rhythm all but forgotten in our digital age, a reminder of time passing, passing, passing.
Time is a tough foe. We race with it, beat ourselves up over it, lose ourselves in it. In the end, time always prevails. Writing, an inefficient pursuit at best, is especially at odds with time. As a New Year looms, full of promise, we can’t resist looking back at all we failed to accomplish – the unfinished manuscript, the imperfect poem, the unanswered queries.
But writing, as Doctorow points out, is no mere way of passing the time. It is an endeavor that entails large risks, risks that call your very sense of self into question.
“It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader,” said Paul Gallico back in 1946. “If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don't feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you're wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.”
Real writing, the hazardous, vein-opening kind, is at odds with our schedule-happy, competitive, productivity-obsessed modern age. Revision is especially so. In her essay “Waiting and Silence,” Susan Snively notes that Franz Kafka kept a sign above his desk that said simply “Wait.” A writer’s completion of a first draft, Snively says, is “the most exhilarating, and therefore treacherous, moment,” because we are all too eager to show our unpolished work to the world.
The ticking of my clock is a gift, a reminder that as a writer, I’m privileged to step beyond time. In my stories, I can mold it as I choose. I can take immeasurable risks without leaving my chair. I can stop time, waiting until a piece rights itself, following the example of poet Elizabeth Bishop, who would leave gaps in her drafts where she lacked the right words, waiting patiently for them to reveal themselves. “Her refusal to hurry a poem was, among other things,” Snively says, “a way to say that the poem’s special life had to be honored above her own need for closure or publication.”
The swinging pendulum of our newly-refurbished clock serves as a steady reminder that the passion for truth trumps the march of minutes and hours every time. In this season of joy and reflection, may we be fierce with determination, unflinching with risks, and generous with ourselves.
Try This: As a remedy for the idea that writing must be about ideas, Sydney Lea suggests that in your daily journal you note, with minimal explanation or editorializing, things that stop you in your tracks. “Aprioristic ideas make for writing of no vigor,” says Lea. Instead, write from your seemingly unconnected time-stoppers. What you’ll discover, Lea promises, is personal idiom and a range of previously unarticulated emotional truths.
Check This Out: Lea’s exercise is one of over ninety in The Practice of Poetry, a thoughtful collection that enlightens even the non-poets among us.