Treasure Hunt

Periodically, a writers’ group I belong to has a writers’ retreat. This weekend we stayed at The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota.

The Anderson House in February 2015

It’s an inspiring place—a stately old home set on acres of land with a sculpture garden on the grounds. There’s a sunny library filled with novels, volumes of poetry, memoirs, histories, and art books. Many were written and contributed by the Center’s guests. In each of the bedrooms, there are journals in which previous visitors (including some well-known writers) commented on their stay. Often they mentioned a breakthrough and expressed gratitude for the Great Things they accomplished . . . which was a bit intimidating.

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Contemplative view from my window, minus the other treasure hunter

On Saturday morning, I sat at my desk and stared out the window.

Outside, a young guy in a hoodie and camo pants moved among the trees, sweeping a metal detector across the lawn. He squatted, dug up something with a trowel, then repacked the dirt, and smoothed it out.

What could he possibly have found—a bottle cap? A quarter? The Anderson House is nearly 100 years old. Maybe a long buried artifact had worked its way to the surface.

Inside, I too was treasure hunting. I sifted through files, piles of words, scraps of images, mining my mind for a memory or a line to spark inspiration.

We both worked doggedly at our tasks.

I hoped to uncover an idea that would justify my presence there, so I’d feel worthy of the gift of time.

Quickly I covered up that wasps’ nest of self-doubt and tamped down my frustration. Smoothed over my prickly worries. Don’t be so driven. That’s not how inspiration works.

I reminded myself: Just spend the time. Do the work.

It will come.

A Fool’s Errand or a Worthy Risk?

I just submitted my memoir manuscript to a publisher. I sweated over every word of the query. I drafted the synopsis and revised it and revised it again so the narrator’s growth was woven into the plot. I fussed over the manuscript sample to make sure it was tight and engaging.

I believe in my book. If I didn’t think it was worthy, I wouldn’t have spent more than 10 years on it.

But as I read and reread my handiwork, doubt crept in. I thought, “Am I wasting my time? Will this book even appeal to the publisher?” I sent it off anyhow.

Next, I polished and fussed with my entry for a writing contest.

Once again, I was assailed by the same suspicion that this is a fool’s errand. I’ve entered that contest half a dozen times and haven’t won yet. Will this year be any different?

Some stubborn, optimistic part of me persists.

While working on these submissions, I countered my doubts with platitudes like, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t try.”

Then I questioned the platitudes. It’s ingrained in the American psyche to believe that you’ll succeed if you try hard enough. That isn’t always true. Sometimes you fail anyhow. Then you have to live with the failure and wonder if it’s your fault because you didn’t try hard enough. Huh?!? What maddening logic.

Americans also love noble failure and tell ourselves, “At least you tried.” That is comforting. Like many Americans, I do believe that it’s better to risk failure than to attempt nothing. Risk is scary, but safety is stifling.

Finally, I come back to Margaret Atwood’s sensible advice: “Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

I’m going to stop whining. As for the entries? Stay tuned.