There’s a huge psychic oppression that comes with assuming that progress only goes in one direction. In my life and in my work, the most substantive progress I’ve ever made looks much less like steps taken along a line than it does a waltz, or a samba – and, in all honesty, there are times when it probably looked like the kind of interpretive dance no one else wants to see. But this only bothers me when I give in to the popular myth that moving forward never necessitates taking a step back. Or, if it does, that those steps we take backward represent a hitch in our progress, rather than a vital part of it.
Like all healthy, long-term relationships, writing progress is not something that flourishes with a particular goal in mind. We don’t, for instance, date until marriage and then consider ourselves done, ready to wash our hands of any struggles that we’ve weathered until that point. Similarly, although popular culture would have us believe that we should work toward the goal of securing a publishing contract/spot on a bestseller’s list/interview with Oprah, if we think signing on the dotted line and opening a bottle of champagne will represent, somehow, an end, I honestly don’t think many of us would bother to write in the first place. I mean, think about it. Who wants to create in order to have created?
I think, like most writers, I write because it scratches the undying itch to learn and understand — and rinse and repeat. In simpler terms, I love writing because it never fails to smack me upside the head and hand me my ass, epistemologically speaking. I went to school for approximately twenty years, and there is still nothing like the light bulb that goes off when I just pick up a book or a pencil and open my mind. And the fact that sometimes the light that gets sparked gives me a shock or makes something I once admired look dim is only something I’ve learned to incorporate as a sign of my dedication to the long haul; an indication that I’m not here to discover the ultimate illumination, but to delight in the fact that no matter how long I’m at this, new qualities of illumination will continue to reveal themselves.
So my wish for all writers out there is that we cease gnawing at the corners of linear progression, hoping that one day they’ll give us nourishment. Instead, I hope we can commit to raising our voices to introduce a new sense of what it means to be successful, one that speaks to the resounding depths of engagement, rather than continue to assume that the tinkling bell of yet another customer through the door is the only music we’re hoping to hear.
Art: “Roman Seafood Mosaic,” Sheila Terry