I was reading Louise Penny’s latest novel, A Trick of Light, the other night and as is the case with all of her Three Pines mysteries, I was completely moved and challenged by it, even while I was wildly entertained.
One of the continuing characters, 50-year-old artist Clara Morrow, after thirty-plus years of endeavour and dedication to growing in her art, has just become an “overnight success” and been given a solo show in the prestigious Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montréal.
Her description of the morning after the vernissage (or, in English, the “opening” of her show) captured me.
“Clara rose early. Putting on rubber boots and a sweater over her pajamas, she poured herself a coffee and sat in one of the Adirondack chairs in their back garden …
“She closed her eyes and could feel the young June sun on her upturned face and could hear birdcalls and the Rivière Bella Bella gurgling past at the end of the garden. Below that was the thrum of bumblebees climbing in and over and around the peonies. Getting lost.
“It looked comical, ridiculous. But then so much did, unless you knew…
“Clara held the warm mug in her hands and smelt coffee, and the fresh-mown grass. The lilacs and peonies and young, fragrant roses.” (Louise Penny, A Trick of Light, Saint Martins Press, New York, N.Y. 2011)
Clara is thrilled and torn by her success (and will experience a myriad of other emotions as she faces jealousy from her renowned artist husband and the fall out from a murder that occurred in her garden during her celebratory party), but even before she sat in the early sun and pondered where she’d come from as an artist and where she was going, another of her inner observations kept coming back to me: “Art was their [her and her husband’s] work. But it was more than that. It had to be. Otherwise, why put up with all those years of solitude? Of failure? Of silence from a baffled and even bemused art world?”
Something in these passages that I can’t quite identify upon rereading and quoting in isolated chunks, in combination with comments a dear friend (and very astute, wise reader) made about one of my current works-in-progress triggered the recognition of a hard truth deep within me: I am not the writer I wish to be.
Now, this is not to say that I’ve ever felt that I was all that I wanted or hoped to be as a writer—not even close. But maybe what happened is that as the realization formed in my head and I saw all the colours and shadows and shapes and sounds of what I yearn to express collide with what I actually manage to get out—and that mess of thoughts bumped into Clara who I couldn’t separate from her author, Louise Penny, I realized that it will always be thus. It never changes. The great secret about aspiring to any Art is that you ever grow—and you ever fall short. There’s no arrival.
And maybe that sounds negative, but it didn’t feel like that to me. Instead it felt like some huge vice that had been holding my heart and mind—one that I was unaware of until I felt the pressure ease—unclenched. I think I’ve been operating under an unexpressed tyranny: “One day, I’ll get there—wherever there is—and all my writing dreams and aspirations will be met. Fireworks will go off. I’ll cease to be filled with self-doubt and lethargy. I will know I am good enough.”
Bunk! I have a lot of so-called successes (albeit they may seem small in some peoples’ eyes) and while I’m delighted and derive huge comfort and satisfaction whenever a reader identifies with, enjoys or connects to something I’ve written, I’ve never yet felt, “Aha, this is it.” Instead, I worry—when will the imposter police break out of wall yelling, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, you’re not a writer at all. You’ve been read and found lacking”?
But it’s not about that. It’s about, as Clara expressed, something more. It has to be.
It’s about striving, yes, but also being content to just be.
To diligently, joyfully—and sometimes sorrowfully or with anger—try to render every moment truthfully. To face (in real life and through my fiction) what I care about. What I question. What makes me rage, cower, cry and scream. What causes me to weep, laugh, smile, or take a deep contented breath and think, ahhhh . . .
It sounds so simple: Just be honest about what’s inside you, Ev!
But I find it so terrifying to face my naked emotional self—to not look away, to not avert my stare—out of discomfort, denial, fear of being revealed (and possibly rejected) for what I am, who I am. . . .
Yet as I pondered what I’d read, what my friend said, a warm coffee cup clutched in both hands, gently steaming as I sipped, and contemplated not just the pages immediately before but all those I written previously, I finally got it—get it. I am not the writer I wish to be. I am only the writer that I am. And it’s okay. More than okay. Perfect, in fact! (And after all, it’s the only possible option on any given day or page or part of a tale.)
I’ll continue to fight to remedy my failings, work hard to grow and change and be better as a writer (and a person), but there’s no magic day to wait for. The reason I write, the value of writing, the reward of writing is here right now. Found in the unyielding sheen of frozen-diamond snow, in the heavy contented sigh of my dog sleeping on my feet, in the questions I have as I stare at the sky, in breakfast with my adult daughter and the sweet complex flavours of conversation and freshly made pumpkin pancakes with syrup, pecans and whipping cream. . . .
The seemingly simple and obvious realization has me feeling a little awed—and strangely free and unencumbered: I am the writer that I am.