This is what I wrote in my cottage journal at Hedgebrook, during my residency there over three years ago. The journals are a tradition, a chance to share your thoughts before, during or at the end of your stay. Each cottage has a shelf of them, and each resident is encouraged to read through them to understand what the occupants before have learned or experienced, what they have to share about their time spent in the woods. Advice, reflection, loneliness, frustration — you name it, the journals have it all. It’s hard not to reread them and wonder if you’re making the most of your time, or how you size up to those who have come before (hello, famous novelist) and equally hard to decide what to add, your own two cents.
The novel I’m writing has been in progress, in one form or another, for almost twenty years. Yes, there has been another book, and yes, I have drafts of two other books waiting my attention, and yes I have cheated on it over and over with other ideas, but this is the one I keep thinking I must finish. Perhaps it’s ego, the harping idea that I simply can’t give up, not after all this time. Perhaps it’s obsession, the writer’s nag to get the image of the butchers block just right (see Madame Bovary). Perhaps it’s just plain madness or idiocy, Penelope weaving the cloth each day to unweave it each night.
I don’t have an answer. I have given up trying to understand. Whatever passion or fervor I once had for the idea has slowly been replaced with some kind of grinding, grueling necessity, like the marathoner whose body is broken but is determined to get to mile 19, then 20. I don’t even see the finish line, not really. I have in the past and then been betrayed, so I don’t try to look for it anymore. Instead, I tell myself that for some reason I am meant to see this through, to finish, to weave and unweave and dig deeper and cut 25 old pages so I can write 30 new ones. That the ending I wrote three years ago and am desperate to keep may not be the ending anymore, that the big chunk of a turning point I’ve tried ten different ways may need an eleventh.
I keep telling myself, in other words, to trust the process.
It took me two weeks to know what to write in my cottage journal during my residency. I didn’t write it until the very last minute, right before the taxi came to take me to the airport, and home. I didn’t know what I’d learned until I had to tell someone else, or say nothing at all. And so I came up with the least threatening bit of advice I could muster, and that was to remain humble, in the face of everything.