This post appeared originally on NicoleDieker.com, as part of my monthly creative practice column.
I have this week embarked upon the Shaping of my next book.
I know, I know: I said I had embarked, and then abandoned ship, a couple of months ago, and that’s entirely true. This is a different book, though! This book has been in progress longer, in fact. It’s just slow going, in the best sense. Slow in the sense of sweet, relaxing. The sense of having plenty of time, and the sense of not being concerned in the least about hours and days as numbered by the clock.
I’m studying Old English (also slowly), mainly because I want to read the poetry. There’s a line that haunts me — a simple line, a statement of right-being that is not profound (although I’d argue in another sense it absolutely is.) That line is: Éa, of dune sceal, flodgræg féran.*
And that’s your only clue what the book is about.
In fact I’ve got four books in the hopper right now, and vague ideas about another two. One is the abandoned manuscript from this summer, which I suspect I may scrap for parts, but who knows? It’s a cohesive whole, and it’s persuasive — it’s just not ready to spin up the chrysalis yet. One is the present volume I’m being needlessly mysterious about, one is fiction (who even am I?), one is not-poetry, and the others are probably sections of some yet-to-be-imagined larger work.
Will any of these make it to book form? I care deeply about the answer to this, but I’m learning I’m just not going to know it. Maybe for years.
“Things take the time they take.” I’m quoting Mary Oliver again; you are not surprised. The next line of that poem is “Don’t worry.”** And I do try to take that advice. There is only a certain amount of control I have, and surprisingly little of it pertains to when a particular piece of art is finished, or what its finished and public form is going to look like.
That’s not a bad thing. That’s not a good thing? I think it depends on factors outside of an artist’s control. For me, and for Tell the Turning, it has been a good thing. I had a lot of love and a lot of work and I lot of hope to give that book, but I couldn’t have imagined (let alone crafted) the way the book actually, physically, turned out. It took collaboration to imagine that. Collective imagination.
It’s also — now that the book is arriving in homes and shops, and is subject to continued co-creation by its readership — going to keep taking a species of trust in the process. The part of the process, in this case, that I have nothing to do with.
This is easy to grasp intellectually. It’s harder to know in my body: in my restless, wrestling brain; and in my fingers, eager to shape their wanderings to pen and keyboard. There is The Gathering, there is The Shaping, there is The Singing, there is The Resting, and there is…I don’t know what to call this phase yet. I just got here.
So I’ll go back, instead — to a concept I brushed past a moment ago, but it left some burrs on my sleeve. “The process.”
Present Book — you know what, I’m just going to call it Éa. (It’s not called Éa.) Éa has been conversing with me irregularly since before Tell the Turning. She’s — she hasn’t got a gender, but “it” is wrong, so let’s go with “she” for now. She is reserved. She needs to be sure I’ll get her right. And she’s a strong companion; I’m glad to walk beside her as long as it takes. I’m glad indeed to be giving my full attention to her Shaping. And I’m also… afraid? to take eyes off Tell the Turning.
I know the shape of this fear. It has nothing to do with Tell the Turning specifically. It has to do with the fact that, because I have been through the process with Tell the Turning, I supposedly know what I’m doing now in writing a book. And if I know what I’m doing, I have a responsibility I didn’t have before, when I was flying by the seat of my pants. If I know how to make a book now, that means that in making Éa, I could end up making her wrong.
I could definitely let this paralyze me. I have a history of doing so.
I’ve written before that I’ve not been good at studying. As a child, I didn’t learn how to learn; I expected to be good at whatever I tried. And when I wasn’t, the (perceived) scrutiny involved in growing awkwardly beyond my present mastery of a given subject or skill felt impossible to bear — so, plenty of times, I quit. And that’s ultimately the shape of my worry with Éa: not just what if I get her wrong, but what happens after that: what if trying again is just too hard, what if I quit?
So my job right now is to learn to be a strong companion myself. One thing I think this means is trusting the process.
“The process” is specific, and the process is also Mysterious. I know that the best thing about making art is making art, so the specifics are: Invite poems. Compose. Light my special Éa candle, pick a rock to help me remember where this collection comes from, and revise. Assemble a manuscript. Print it out. Reassemble it. Line-edit. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Then give it to my publisher, and revise, reassemble, and edit all over again. Add unknown amounts of time between steps.
I know these steps now. I love them, which is one reason I can trust them. And they steady me, which is another. I can find them any time, and no matter what they produce — in the moment or the day or the week — the process of attending them will hold me up. They are right work.
This is where the Mystery comes in: over time — the-time-that-is-right, kairos, not the-time-on-my-calendar-and-clocks — this right work, this process, will teach me how to unfold the work of art, the product.
This is the part where “trust” becomes also “faith.”
Faith is not about knowing what will happen. It’s precisely the opposite: the not-knowing is the reason to trust.
So “knowing what I’m doing” means not that I know how things ought to turn out. It means that I know how to do the daily work, and how to trust that daily work to catalyze creation.
I don’t doubt that I’ll learn this over and again. I don’t doubt that I’ll stumble. Trust is harder than it sounds. (And it sounds hard.) Fear sounds awful, but it can be comforting: a reason not to do the work, a reason to quit.
Éa, and Tell the Turning, are better reasons — to keep going. They are strong companions, and I want to be one too.
So I have work to do.
*Those commas are not original to the text. I put them in to get around a caesura that would look like a typo because I’m only quoting one line, and to indicate where I prefer to punctuate the sentence when I’m speaking it.
**The poem this comes from is also called Don’t Worry. It’s short, and I recite it pretty often. It’s a beautifully-decorated little stop sign for the anxiety-prone brain.