I look at the clock, it’s 9:03 pm, then light the beeswax candle. Dirty dishes line the counter, the floor needs to be swept, and there’s a basket of damp laundry that should be looked after. Instead of doing any of it I pick up my pen. Thirty minutes, I tell myself. You have thirty minutes to write whatever you feel like. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to make sense, and it doesn’t even have to be words. Doodle, draw, whatever. Just keep your pen on the paper.
I’m midway through the first page when I hear footsteps behind me. I don’t turn around.
“Mom, I can’t go to sleep.”
I keep writing.
“Mom, what are you doing?”
“It’s a test,” I say. “I can’t talk to you anymore. I just have to keep writing. I can’t stop my pen.”
Susanna fills a glass of water, comes close, and looks over my shoulder. “A test? Who is it for?”
“For me,” I say. I keep writing and eventually she goes to bed. At least I think that’s what she does but I can’t be sure. All I know is the next time I look up she isn’t there.
The creative impulse fascinates me. Why do we do the things we do? Why do people take the time to express themselves on paper? Plan elaborate wedding showers? Spend hours carving snow into something that will eventually turn into a puddle? Give up evenings and weekends to be part of a community musical? None of this stuff makes us wealthy or famous, or even puts food in our bellies, and yet we still do it.
For the last few years I’ve been submitting my writing to different literary magazines in the hopes of getting published. I’ve kept a log of all my attempts: essay titles, word counts, dates submitted, and dates rejected. I decided I would try 100 times before giving myself the option of quitting. (I read somewhere that new writers get rejected 100 times, on average, before their first acceptance.) Once, when I told Stan one of my essays just got rejected he responded cheerfully, “Well that’s one less you have to go through. Only ninety more!”
At the end of November I opened my email and noticed a note from the editors of Geez magazine. I geared up to read another courteous letter explaining why my work wasn’t the right fit, when I noticed the first line of their email. I re-read it again before clicking on it. They liked my piece! They liked it well enough they wanted to publish it in their hard-copy magazine! I was thrilled that someone who doesn’t even know me was willing to read my writing, let alone print it for others.
A few weeks ago I got my second acceptance. This time it was from a literary journal out of Madison, WI. The editor liked my piece but wondered if I would be willing to consider some suggestions. I wrote back as quickly as I could, trying to sound pleasant and nonchalant at the same time, without typing I’LL CHANGE WHATEVER YOU WANT ME TO!!!!!!
Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for the cheques to roll in. Oh wait. Wrong story. There won’t be any huge bank deposits from my writing just yet, or maybe ever, but I will get several free copies (with a 5 dollar discount on additional copies!) and a small honorarium. Which is fine with me, because it really is about the journey, and not the destination.
Sometimes, though, I forget the cliché about the journey. I forget why any of us make stuff. I forget it is part of our DNA to be creative. I forget that mucking around with paper-maché or fabric or car parts or paint or dirt or wood or strings or seeds or words is actually worship; a way to bear witness to beauty and say Thank You and Wow to the Giver. Instead, I start comparing and feel like a minnow in an ocean of other writers who are edgier, fresher, or more talented, connected, and entertaining than me. When I take on the minnow persona, life becomes a tight and desperate race. How do I get more hits on my blog? Which podcast will give me the key to success? Where can I submit to next? Focusing on questions like this, I forget the real reason I write.
There was a time in our lives, shortly after Stan and I married, when we were into giving away stained glass. If you knew us and it was your birthday, you got one. Your wedding? We had your present cased. You hosted us at your house? You were the new owners of a soldered treasure made with love by yours truly. During this period we took a day off to cycle around rural Pennsylvania. It was an idyllic outing, with towns named Paradise and Intercourse on our route, a picnic lunch, and quaint shops home to potters, glass-blowers, quilters, and of course, stained-glass artists. We bought glass for ourselves, carefully wrapping up the burgundy, gold, and royal blue panes before slipping them in our packs and pedaling on to the next town. When we stopped along the way to drink homemade root beer, sold by an Amish family at the end of their lane, I suggested we work on some stained glass for ourselves. That’s when I found out the truth from Stan.
Leaning against his bike and swirling the jar of home-brew in his hand he responded to my idea, “I don’t really like it.”
“What do you mean? You don’t like the drink?” Surely he wasn’t talking about stained glass after we had spent so much energy scoring and soldering pieces for other people.
“No, I mean stained glass. I guess it’s okay… kinda tacky, maybe. I don’t know, I just like doing it.”
I learned that Stan enjoyed piecing the colours together, but he wasn’t nearly as fascinated with the final product as he was the process. The intrigue and pleasure came from brainstorming designs, then seeing them come to life–one painstaking cut at a time. I think about Stan and stained glass on days like yesterday, when I got another rejection from a publication I had my sights set on. It helps me remember what I know; that the act of piecing things together, be they words or glass, matters as much as the end result. In fact, the doing keeps us true to our identity as makers, and children of the Maker, more than the thing itself or any publishing credentials.
The clock reads 9:43 pm; I’ve gone ten minutes into over-time. I shut my notebook without reading anything I’ve written and blow out the candle. Tomorrow I will skim the unwieldy paragraphs, looking for anything worth repeating. Like picking chocolate chips out of trail mix, I’ll filch sentences that point me in the direction of this post. Whenever I get the chance over the next few days, I will type these phrases and many more. Finally, when I hope I’ve caught most of my errors I’ll share it with the world, but by then the fun will be over. That’s when I’ll know it’s time to give it away and start making something else.