Like Well Water

July 28, 2009

in Learning,Process,Thinking,Words

Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Martin (@Reptitude) July 29, 2009 at 9:25 pm

Matt! This is such a throw down the gauntlet quote. It feels good and courageous and right to drill down like that.

But afterwards, “what if” we can’t fill it back up again? What if we draw the well down so low that the water turns cloudy because the side streams are pushing in grit now that the main bore’s water level is no longer high enough to hold them back? And what if what if what if what if the blank page is all we can do after this? I hate those kinds of fears. I know we have to work hard to keep refilling the well, to keep the momentum going, to keep the creative muscles in shape. And sometimes we need a lull to remuster strength and passion and mental energy to do more. It’s never easy, or do you think it can be?

Matt Blair August 5, 2009 at 9:59 am

Great questions! Thank you for asking them.

I agree, there’s definitely a vulnerability in sharing what seems or feels like it could be our last idea ever. I don’t know that I’d ever say that it can be easy. Is it inherently difficult, or do we make it difficult for ourselves?

I know in my own experience, some of the frustration and fear comes from an expectation — often implicit — that what’s next will or should resemble what I’ve already done. If our future work doesn’t look like what’s already in our portfolio, maybe we don’t even recognize it for what it is: while we search in disappointment for something familiar and comfortable, we disregard fresh ideas as distractions or by-products.

If the well gets muddy, than maybe our medium is mud for a while. If the blank page is all we can muster, we have a chance to notice its imperfections and inconsistencies, and learn patience. (Or, in this era, if the screen is blank, we might notice subtle patterns of dust and and dead pixels instead. Much less compelling than paper!)

For me, in the broader context, it’s not the specific expression of an idea that matters so much. That’s an artifact — a creative souvenir from a particular time and place. The critical elements are the patterns of thought and effort and experience that made that particular expression, elements of the mind which will create new and different artifacts in the future.

I also think idea-making has a kind of respiratory quality to it. After breathing new work into the world, it’s natural to inhale ideas, to spend some time absorbing culture and letting it nourish us. When we hold ideas in, there’s a point at which we can’t integrate new ideas, just as we can’t keep breathing in without breathing out. To really fill our lungs with air, we must first exhale completely.

Scary, but necessary.

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