I’ve always been self-disciplined, to a fault perhaps. Responsible, accountable. Dogged, in the damning term of one of my grad-school advisers. Lindsey is nothing if not dogged, she wrote in my file, words that stung when I found them with their reminder of how she’d chastised me for showing her too many revisions.
Part of that doggedness is the writer’s schedule I’ve kept for more than twenty years: the hours where I park my ass in the chair and write. Or stare at the screen and despair. Lately those hours have become drudgery. How to get the joy back, the spontaneity? When I first started rising at 5 a.m. to write for two hours before my day job, I felt each morning on the brink of revelation and discovery, on the only path I could travel. Now that I no longer have a day job and can write pretty much whenever I want to, some of that discovery has seeped away. Revising my novel these days feels more like a chore. And even as I write “chore,” I castigate myself, as if I am predicting by describing. Words like “castigate” and “chore” and “drudgery” confirms to myself that I have failed.
Wow. I can hear my husband’s voice. You are so hard on yourself.
But isn’t that what every writer needs to be? Hard on herself? How else would we get the work done?
If you’re reading this, you probably want to stop around here, because you don’t want to go with me any further to such a discouraging place. No one ever promised the writing life was fun and lightness, right? Blah blah. Every writer knows this agony, this self-loathing, this despair. Little new I can say about it.
But this week, I did something new. I went on a field trip. I left the house, with a bag lunch, and instead of going to my office across town where I rent space in a writers’ co-op, I drove to a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate. The bridge, yes, but also the meeting of bay and ocean that gives the bridge its name. Churning blue-gray water, flecked with white caps. A tug pulling a barge. A small cruise ship. Wind-twisted trees and, at the top of the bluff, a museum. I went in and looked at paintings. A noble woman and a child, the woman looking directly at the viewer and the child (in the way of children) looking at something off to the side. The child’s hands stopped me, made me analyze the knuckles and white paint of highlight on a thumb, the uneven and thereby more realistic spread of the fingers, although readying to point. In the same gallery, Abraham parted from Hagar and Ishmael, his face bowed as his head rested on Ishmael’s head but it was Hagar’s face that compelled me. Stark, pale, stricken. On another canvas, Jesus called Matthew from a table of money changers, Matthew’s face and his anachronistic Renaissance sleeve bathed in light.
A group of school kids traipsed through the gallery, talking and giggling and joking. One of them ran across the room to his friends and the guard blocked his way, explained that running isn’t done in museums. I hovered near the docent as she told the students about light and shadow and composition and detail. Sixth, a nearby parent told me when I asked what grade the kids were in. The docent handed out cardboard rectangles to the kids, with space cut out in the middle like picture frames, and sent them on their way to find a piece of art – any artwork in the three galleries – and choose a detail to sketch. The kids got quiet. In groups of two and three, a few alone, they worked on their assignment. Some whispered. Some played with their erasers. And some drew.
I wondered how many kids would remember this exercise 20, 30, 40 years down the road. I wondered for how many this would “take” – who, out of this group would become an artist, in whatever form that took? Would it be the girl alone in front of the pastoral scene of a waterfall? The boy in the POSEY 28 jersey sketching the obsidian-black sculpted head of a Chinese man, complete with long twisted braid? The boy honing in on the titled top hat of an absinthe drinker?
Watching these kids observe the art so closely quieted me, too.