I wrote this letter to a friend who has dedicated years to a novel and now struggles in that beautifully daunting—yet satisfying stage—of revisions. For anyone who chases the artist’s life while navigating daily existence, and feels time’s noneternal tick, I get it.
Yes, that word again, time.
You said you mark time every Thursday—for some reason. I mark time when I see the sun slipping down on Sunday afternoon. We are of a certain age. We mark time in intervals, even if weekly.
You may remember Thoreau’s poetic words: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink, I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”
Yet you are out of time when you are in the writing of your book. We know it is not a craving for praise that drives you. Instead, it is the story that seeks release and form.
With every pass through the text, you take a deeper dive. That is the beauty of your inner working—that oscillation between the human who fearlessly mines delicate emotions and the analyst who refines.
Sometimes when I become reactive to immediate events, it is not about those events. Instead, it is a disruption I feel coming, something working itself out. And I must yield to what that means in art—in my case, poetry or creative nonfiction. I have experienced seismic shifts of late. It’s just stuff working itself out.
Even as a small child, I was drawn to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel until dawn (Genesis 32: 22-32).
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
The story becomes personal in my struggle to understand. It is a long night of wounding and humbling and transformation. It has a cost. Whatever I wrestle with, I cannot name it. Not then. But something comes out of it. A knowing that time cannot take away. The notion of cost yields to the artistic experience that becomes a part of my being. It’s an age-old fight, recaptured by writers and artists for thousands of years.
Is there healing in the limp? For me, that means feeling my humanness to the core and willing out those moments in words.
If given the obstacle-turned-opportunity to wrestle with words, you have received a blessing.
And there is the other thing about Jacob. In a dream, God allowed him to see the doorway to heaven, angels ascending and descending the ladder. He glimpsed this before many struggles.
Do we glimpse heaven when the idea strikes, that lightning moment when a tale—pulled from our time and from our ancestors and from myths of strangers—connects us to billions of humans in a place where there are no frontiers or fear of the other?
And it is on us to choose the work, to aspire—in our small ways—to Michelangelo’s eye that coolly sees the figure in the marble and the human who toils to free it. And we take our chance to become the artisan-and-artist.
In this process, it is all of us, not knowing the precise moment of our death—yet knowing those exquisite moments out of time when music or words or paintings or sculptures take us to joy.