I write this on a very overcast, raw day here in central Ohio. We’re coming to the end of the Autumn Semester at Ohio State, and I’m thinking of what it takes to keep going when we’re writers. After all, there are so many valid reasons to stop. I fear the students in my literary publishing seminar came up against some of them this semester when several visitors from the publishing world gave them a very realistic idea of the odds of getting a book published and also of that book doing well.
What can we do, though, if we’re truly writers but keep writing? I’ve long been a believer that if we pay attention to what we love to do—moving words around on the page—the journey will always take us where we’re meant to go.
One summer, when I was a teenager, I helped my father clear overgrown fencerows around our farmhouse. We used a crosscut saw to take down small trees. We swung mattocks to grub out honeysuckle and wild blackberry briars. Sometimes the mattocks struck stones and brought our swinging to a halt. Sometimes, the sawblade stuck in the tree trunk, and my father would tell me to pour oil over it to provide lubrication. Soon, we’d be back on track. At the end of the day, we stood, sweat running off our faces, and we admired the clean path we’d cleared.
“Sometimes,” my father said one evening, “you just have to clear out the mess.” He waved his arm toward the clean fencerow. “Look there,” he said. “Now you can see what’s on the other side.”
A neighbor’s bean field, the green plants ankle high. There, in the Midwestern flatlands, I could see all the way to the horizon, that place where land met sky, and looking out at all that blue I felt something I can now only think of as hope. I wouldn’t have called it that then, this feeling of something clearing, but now I think there was a degree of absolution that evening. My father and I had been at odds throughout my teenage years, but here we were working together, and what we’d done was take hold of something out of control and toss it away so we could see in a way previously withheld.
Surely there’s a lesson here for writers. Keep at it. When you find yourself slowing down or stalled, do whatever you can to again find a working rhythm. Don’t be afraid to cut and discard. Keep looking for the aspect of the work you haven’t quite seen. Don’t hesitate to start anew. Keep doing what you love. Keep doing the good work.