Writing, Focus, and Forgiveness
As a freelance writer, a creative person, and a navigator of my own career, this month’s topic (favorite quotes) brought two things to mind.
The first is something I read years ago, in an interview with the actor Alan Alda. In it, he spoke about a revelation he had as a young actor, trying to make a go in the business, and always struggling against the endless list of things he wasn’t accomplishing, the jobs he wished he could get, the professional accolades he hadn’t yet achieved. And the revelation was this: that he should stop worrying so much about what he wasn’t doing and focus much more on what he WAS doing.
So simple, but such apt advice, and for me, something I need to be reminded about, over and over.
I find it very easy to fret about all the books I haven’t written, all the stories I’ll never get to, all the qualities of my writing that I wish were better…. but meanwhile, I’ve turned this idea of Alda’s into a kind of guidestar. When I’m getting dragged down in my own imaginings of what I may never get around to, never achieve, etc., I remind myself to focus on the project right in front of me—whether that’s a novel, a lecture, an upcoming workshop, or whatever else.
And related to that, here’s an absolute favorite quote of mine, from Ann Patchett, in her essay, The Getaway Car.
"Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.
“Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time.
"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.
“Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”
There’s a beautiful practicality to this kind of thinking—the kind I suppose could be mistaken for cynicism. But for me, anything I can use to keep myself focused on doing work that is both achievable AND as good as I can make it is far preferable to the empty pursuit of perfection. This is never about letting go of my ideals, but about keeping sight of them at the same time that I’m keeping sight of what’s happening right here, right now, right in front of me.