“As Irwin Shaw once said, ‘A writer does not write just one story at a time. A person who writes is on a long journey, and he or she is saying, ‘Here is where I am today and here is what this place looks like today.’ A body of work should be looked at from a far horizon. You look at a person’s career, you’ll see it rise to a peak and then settle to a lower plain, and then rise to a lower peak…” -Harlan Ellison
It’s tempting to look at life as a task: a class to teach, a book to write, a job to land, an election to win. It’s tempting to look at a task as a singular challenge: a shot to make, a speech to give, a jump to land. In a culture that likes pointing out who’s winning and who’s losing, looking at life that way can seem comforting. It lets me know who’s on top. It also makes every problem one good moment–one great success–away from being solved. All the same, I think looking at life that way distorts everything in front of me.
When I look at the people I admire, I don’t see one clever move and then a retreat from the game. I don’t see a “game” at all, with clear rules and clear winners. I see work, day after day. I see uncertainty, day after day. I see love, day after day. I don’t think a good teacher gives one great lesson: I think she lets her students know that they matter, and that their thoughts can matter. I don’t think a novel’s written in one great burst: even the stream of consciousness writers come back to writing, again and again, to practice, and the rest of them walk through a narrative with lots of steps. If I look at anything important I’ve done, I don’t see a single race: I see a thread in the wider weaving of learning, hurting, making friends and eating (perhaps too much) chocolate.
A few months ago, I wrote down this line, looking for a poem: “…and forgetting my high intentions, add my feather’s weight.” I haven’t found the poem yet, but the idea is important to me. I don’t think that what’s in front of me is one grand performance. It’s a “long journey” of confusions and ideas. It’s a chance to build what we are, what we give the world, not with a grand gesture but with the long, sometimes shaky, sometimes inspired effort of every day.