Bon Anniversaire

I tend to get nostalgic around birthdays. Actually, that’s not true. Even after living in the writing craft for years, it amazes me how often the first words we write (the easy ones) are lies. It turns out to be incredibly taxing to tell the truth. Not because the morality is burdensome but because all the things we’ve heard before slip right out, there’s not a moment of labor in their birth. Nearly a decade into trying to live as some kind of writer, I still find myself compulsively asking before a blank page, “What can I write?” instead of “What do I think?” The assigned essay dies hard.

The milestone at hand is not my own birthday (though that was recent), but the one year anniversary of this site. Last summer I set a goal of starting a public site for my writing and 52 weeks later, here we are. I think it’s been a worthy experiment. Thank you for joining me in it.

The ways you’ve joined me have been surprising. I’ve been surprised at both the relative lack of comments on the site itself and at the number of times these posts spring up in face-to-face conversation. Each time I’ve assumed the site silence meant little here was making connection, some conversation suggested otherwise. I’ve been honored by revelations that people I admire and respect allow my words into their time, lives and minds. Thank you.

I’ve also been humbled by the additional evidence that fame is unlikely. I’m not particularly interested in fame. (Not at all, actually.) But I’ve struggled recently to justify the sacrifices of time, self and energy (especially on my children’s behalf) that regular, crafted writing requires. If my work is not out in the world– doing something for somebody– it’s difficult to consider it less than selfish. Given the time I’ve already devoted to learning this craft and the cost of my studying it, the possibility that I’m writing only for myself is both crushingly disappointing and massively unethical. A year of blogging has not revealed my shining brilliance to the otherwise dim world (surprise, surprise), but knowing you few kind people out there read and consider this work has been a consistent buoy against discouragement.

The real truth of birthdays is that they make me conscious of the future. I set goals on birthdays: This year I want to end each day with a fresh memory of my children’s eyes. This year I want to buy all my clothing used to unvote for crushed and suffocated Indian textile workers. This year I want to pause three seconds— even just three seconds— before I start talking.

On this particular anniversary, I’ve been challenged by both the practical and philosophical. I can’t sustain weekly posting—even if I allow myself quotes and questions. Posting weekly in this season of my life leaves too little time for long or complex projects. I also haven’t yet found the sweet spot between “deadline inspires” and “frequency dilutes.” I’m not willing to waste anybody’s time by continuing that experiment publically.

Philosophically, I’m still working out the details but I’m pestered by George Anderson’s claim that more art isn’t always better. I’m not sure how this works on the personal scale, but I can see a case for considering the implications of the quantity of public display. I’d rather publish less but have each public piece carry more meaning. Since I’m never going to make an economic living by writing, I at least want to be sure my writing makes some kind of living (for myself and others).

So, I hope to see you (even in your virtual silence) in the year to come. You’ll hear from me less, but when I show up at your door I’ll skip the Boone’s Farm and try to bring Bordeaux every time. I hope we’ll have the chance, one way or another, to chat about the bouquet. Joyeaux anniversaire, mes amis.

Encounter: Jonathan Safran Foer

Last spring, about this time, I heard Jonathan Safran Foer speak at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. As I read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I keep thinking of one of his thoughts in particular.

[Sorry for the paraphrase, Jonathan– even with your thoughtful pace, I couldn’t write fast enough for a direct quote.]

When I was younger, I thought I’d spend my life writing a mountain of words– that I’d write sentences and I’d pile them up until I could climb up and see something from the top of them. Instead, I find it’s like my sentences are filling holes. I write sentences and dump them in these holes. Then I can walk across.