Writers on Writing #35: Shannon Huffman Polson
Please and Thank You.
I begin. Fingers moving over the keyboard, because this is my time. I do not have a lot of time. I have to sit down with what is available. I do not have time to walk, and stew, smoke (I don’t) or drink, ponder or worry. I will ponder and worry between words, between phrases sometimes, after I write, always, but first I have to start.
The inspiration? Ideas, experiences, things I haven’t yet made sense of yet but know there is something there. I know there is something there because I haven’t made sense of it. Or because I have, but I’m starting to doubt it. “You live in the midst of mystery,” says Richard Rodriguez, “and you say you don’t know what to write?” Amy Tan says you start from a place of moral ambiguity. Sometimes it takes me a while to weed through the ambiguity of circumstances to the moral ambiguity; that’s the good stuff. That’s where the writing has to end up.
This piece is about a mountain. It is about climbing the mountain. I have to describe this. I’m generalizing, not telling the story. It is about feet. I should describe the boots, the socks, the thin socks inside vapor barrier socks inside heavy wool socks inside neoprene lines plastic hiking boots. But I started with the mountain. This part will have to go, yield to the boots. I have time for a quick worry, a quick ponder. The mountain must remain. Where will it fit? Around the boots, even if it is so much bigger. It is not the focus. It is only the scene. Now the boots are the scene. The essay is about vulnerability. Vulnerability is the focus. Bigger than, smaller than the mountain, the boots. How do I write vulnerability?
The first word has to come from whatever is in my mind. The word I find will not be the first word when I finish. But it nudges thought, opening up the passages through which course thoughts and ideas, like water, like blood…and occasionally grace. This is what I’m waiting for. Grace. It will only come from moving my fingers, moving my mind, letting my fingers follow, going back and correcting, letting them go forward again. Something in this lubrication of thought smooths the way for grace, on occasion. If grace comes, it will come silently--not a flash, not a bang—just a rush of thought like water, sometimes a word, always a feeling of abundance, of beauty. It might be just a glimpse, a mountain through a cloud, and it might linger, like a sunrise.
Elizabeth Gilbert recalls that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed creatives had a genius; they were not geniuses in their own right, but they had an external source of inspiration to be credited (or blamed) with their creations. She suggests the humanist move to consider a person a genius is at the root of creative angst. I like that. The real inspiration comes only sometimes, only if I sit down and start to work. It is not me, but it may come through me. Sometimes it does not. Then I close my eyes, and say: please. I have to also remember when it comes to close my eyes and say: thank you.
The mountain becomes boots, a tent. Then the words move on—the same piece---a woman I met in a hospital… Maunday Thursday Services. It is vulnerability, nakedness. It is boots. Foot washing. Exposure. Cold. Frozen water. Liquid water. Faith. Light.
I worry that what I write will not be good, and sometimes I don’t want to start. I make excuses for the day, and sometimes the next day. I worry that I’m deluding myself, thinking I can do this thing, this creation, this art, which can turn to fear, and even terror like…like…like a flash flood in a slot canyon (where did that come from?). The worry can slump to depression. It has done all of these things.
The only way for grace to come is to sit down and write. It might not come today, tomorrow, or this month. My job is to sit down. To begin. To remember to say thank you, as well as please, no matter what happens. To question what I see and remember, to think of the scene, to think of the story, to think of what is important, and to try to write as best I can. This is not sexy, or interesting to say, but it is everything. Maybe it is this that is grace itself.
Shannon Huffman Polson’s first book, North of Hope: A Daughter’s Arctic Journey, a memoir including mountains, fear and grace, is due out April 9, 2013 (Zondervan/Harper Collins). She writes and lives with her family in Seattle. You can find her at coffee shops sometimes, and always at aborderlife.com.