As my students are gearing up to write their own memoirs for the course I’m teaching this semester, I thought I’d share with them a quote from one of my mentors, Frederick Busch who died far too early. He was writing a letter to the writer Elizabeth Strout, who was having difficulties in getting her novel off the ground. This is what he wrote:
“…Not only do I think it’s not shameful ‘to try for something bigger,’ I think it’s inevitable and, in fact, the job description of the serious writer. Why bother to write a novel, or story, or poem, if you know you can succeed at it? I thought the idea was that one is a writer because one is compelled to try for something so difficult, so large, so fearful to the writer, that failure is inevitable. And you measure yourself—and deserve to be measured—by what you did in the failing; and THAT is art.”
Of course, I was trying to inspire my students, trying to encourage them to take risks in subject matter, to reveal more of themselves rather than conceal themselves behind fancy language on the page. To write the BIG essay, the one that terrifies them, the one that seems impossible, to take that leap of faith and give it their all, write their blessed hearts out. Some of them looked at me like I was just this shy of crazy (though that’s not far from the mark) because I was speaking with excited, exuberant emphasis. Others smiled, were already, I imagined, thinking about the risks they would take for the course.
So I said,“Take your writing seriously, take yourself as a writer seriously, and I will take you, not just as student, but as a serious writer attempting (and failing at times) to create Art.” Art—that thing that keeps us reading into the wee hours of the night, or stops us at a museum in front of a painting, that asks us to remain with the painting for an hour, just gazing, deliberately, or the symphony we listen to on the drive back home from work that catches us in the throat so that we are weeping because it is so beautiful and we have to wipe our runny nose on our sleeve because we can’t find any damned tissues. We are so moved.
Art and the struggle to create it. That was the theme of today’s class.
And then I went back to my office and reread the Frederick Busch quote and realized that he was also talking about my recovery, too. For instance, I could aim small: Eat my meals today, do not purge today, do not cut today. You know, the hour-by-hour living that sometimes is all we have to hang on to. The little vows: I will not purge today. I will be a decent human being today instead of the unstable mess I’ve become. Today, today, today.
But then I thought, well, Fred would tell me to aim higher, to aim to make my life, if I may be so bold to state it, a work of ART. Yes, capital ART. A life filled with, yes, the shadows (necessary for contrast), but with the larger belief that I am necessary to the world, that my life is necessary to the world (if I might be self-important for a moment). I am here, as we all are, for a reason. A BIG reason. One that might not yet have shown itself, but is waiting patiently to reveal itself tomorrow or next month, or next year, or in ten years. So I have to stick around for that Bigger, more expansive life that Dr. B. keeps promising will be there if only I stay alive for it.
Another thought: If Art requires a struggle to make something BIG, then so does my life. I need to live BIG. At the moment I’m living small. Literally trying to get smaller, to take up less space, to drop weight. But I am also hiding under covers, collapsing into two hour naps just so I don’t have to move through an afternoon with my family. I avoid friends. I disconnect from family members, from my very own children who, clamoring, only want me, me, me—want my living presence and attention. Their little hearts are bursting for my attention. All of the tiny negotiations of living send me into a tailspin these days. A breakdown the other night because of a babysitter mix-up, which was almost immediately solved by a quick phone call to our back-up sitter. Yet, there I was, screaming at Christopher in the kitchen, losing my shit, feeling like the world was going to end. Small complications. A small life.
So live BIG. Be seen. Be heard. Be honest, even when telling the truth is agonizing and humiliating. Admit to throwing up the small handful of granola. Admit to walking six miles when you said you’d stick to four. Admit that you would give up running and horseback riding if you could only stay at 120 pounds. Admit to wanting to cut your arms up. Admit to feeling lost. Admit to feeling needy. Admit to wanting to end my life. Air the secret dirty laundry and IT becomes less menacing.
BIG. A B-eautiful life. An I-nspired life. A G-race-filled life.