“Well, I tell you these things to show you that working is not grinding but a wonderful thing to do; that creative power is in all of you if you give it just a little time; if you believe in it a little bit and watch it come quietly into you; if you do not keep it out by always hurrying and feeling guilty in those times when you should be lazy and happy. Or if you do not keep the creative power away by telling yourself that worst of lies—that you haven’t any.”
The above quote is from a book called If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I came across it in my attic last week, and found myself standing in that dusty sunlit room, absorbed into its pages for so long that Carl wondered what had happened to me and came looking. My parents bought this book for me when they came to visit me in San Diego in 1999. We went walking at the beautiful park called Embarcadero, down on the water, but still close to downtown. There’s a small book store there, the kind with floor to ceiling shelves, stacks of books haphazardly arrayed and a coffee bar squeezed into the middle of the chaos. I’m sure we spent a happy hour in there, (my mom and I could easily pass days in bookstores in complete contentment) and we left with several purchases, including If You Want to Write.
I had determined in 1999, while living in San Diego, that I wanted to be a writer. But then, in the upheaval of moving back to Philadelphia, getting my first real job, my first real apartment, and generally trying to grow up, writing got lost. I kept a journal, off and on, I wrote poems here or there. I even took a writing class where I worked on some short stories. But then I found myself in law school, my creative writer in some sort of coma.
Thankfully, the bar exam was just the horrible impetus I needed to start my novel. I stole sweet hours from my studying to conjure up characters, to name them, to begin to write their story. And then I got a job, and let the novel rot in my computer, untouched for two years.
Since I’ve started working on the novel again, I’ve often felt bad about the lost time. If I had started seriously writing in 1999, how much further would I be now? I know regret is pointless, and beating myself up is unhealthy, but it has been hard to shake a feeling of loss over all that time I could have been writing. This week, I found some comfort in another book, a biography of Jane Austen where I learned that she had a seven year period when she didn’t write at all, after she wrote her first three novels, before any of them had been published. As I tried to figure out my own fallow period, I wondered about Jane’s. Why didn’t she write for all that time? We don’t know, maybe Jane didn’t know, but knowing that she had a long dry spell with writing makes me feel better about mine.
I am grateful to Jane Austen for her beautiful work, for inspiration, for her courage, persistence and faith. And I am grateful for having found Brenda Ueland’s little book, not just for the wisdom and encouragement contained within its covers, but also for the memory of that sunny afternoon in San Diego, absorbing love from my parents, a long way from home and a short way from adulthood.