Some Thoughts on Working, Fear, and Growth

It’s staunchly autumn here in western PA, and I’m beginning to feel it happening. I’m starting to work on my book again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to even think about working on the manuscript, and that absence has been hard — troubling — to me.

I’ve been thinking, probably too much, about the professional repercussions of not having a book deal yet. But a series of things lately have helped me edge a bit closer to opening myself up to the possibility in the work again.

I wrote a manifesto about writing along with my students as a class assignment, and the prompt I gave them to start was “what do you love about _____ (your work)?” and I got to articulate that to myself.

Last night, the poet Gerry LeFemina read and gave a talk on campus. A student I respect very much asked him an insightful question. He asked, was there a point at which you knew you were getting better? Do you always dislike your work, because that keeps you growing? Essentially, he was asking how you mark growth and development and also keep at the work.

Gerry responded with something I didn’t know I needed to hear until he said it: that the pace of growth changes as you continue writing. That at first, when you’re beginning to practice, you will make discoveries and revelations much more frequently and dramatically. Every two months you’ll write something you couldn’t have written two months ago.

But the longer you work at it, he said, those markers of progress will be set farther and farther apart. You will have to go for longer stretches of time without seeing growth, or making some kind of leap in ability. Sometimes you will go a year or two, and realize that your work looks the same as it did last year.

And you will have to resist the fear that you have plateaued. You will have to work against the pull to become stagnant.

Because new discovery is still a possibility for you, but it’s a little further off.

This morning, Matt Bell posted a Georgia O’Keefe quote and a BrainPickings post with excerpts from her letters. I’ve always loved O’Keefe’s work, and her writing about art and process rings true and strong. Matt’s post reminded me of a visit I made with my mother last year to the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In the corner of one of the rooms in the museum, there was a large white sign onto which had been printed a quote. It hung with me for a long while, and I’m thinking of it now, while I try to get back to work:

“I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted, as that seemed to be the only thing I could do that didn’t concern anybody but myself … I found that I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way, things that I had no words for.”

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