You’ve been thinking about a project, trying out beginnings, thinking through images. In your mind, this book, short story, essay, or poem is evolving into something brilliant—something shimmering like stained glass, light streaming through the colors, gleaming, perfect, like the rose window in Notre Dame.
Ann Patchett talks about this phenomenon, how that stunning masterpiece in our mind is so beautiful and perfect, it’s like a butterfly flitting around. It’s alive. Brilliant. Gleaming. Perfect.
In “The Getaway Car,” she writes about her confidence in this book she hasn’t yet written, how it is “the greatest novel in the history of literature.” She simply needs to put it down on paper for the beautiful butterfly to be seen with awe by all.
She stalls, but eventually realizes it’s time. She must sit down and write this masterpiece into existence. And that’s when she says she reaches up and plucks the butterfly from the air—from her head, where it’s been flitting around on creativity’s breezes—and presses it to her desk, killing it.
Here’s how she describes it in “The Getaway Car”:
Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book. (25)
Whether the masterpiece in your head looks like a stained glass window or butterfly, we, too, have to take up the keyboard or pen and try to put words to it. We slam the three-dimensional perfect project down to the surface of our desk and it falls flat. The stained glass window starts to look more like a paint-by-numbers project, and the butterfly? It looks like an entry in the coloring contest at the local grocery story or a specimen in your brother’s insect collection.
It’s so disappointing, it’s tempting to give up. In episode 56, “To Learn How to Write, You Have to Write,” we talked about filling the gap between where we’re at and where we want to be with a volume of work. We look ahead and see the skill level and beauty others make—those who have inspired us—and then we know where we’re at, so we get to work trying to fill that gap.
We keep making stuff. And every effort disappoints.
Our ideas and words fall onto the page, lifeless. Where’s the gleam, the shimmer, the brilliance that’s in our minds?
We’re left staring at this two-dimensional, dead specimen in front of us on the screen or the page, wondering why we ever thought we could be a writer.
But look how Ann Patchett herself is discouraged with what she puts down on the page compared with what’s in her head.
What we need to do at that point, when we’re disappointed, Patchett says, is forgive ourselves.
We have to forgive ourselves for not being the writer we felt we needed to be to write the beautiful story in our heads.
All we can do is be the writer we are at that moment in time.
[T]his grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself. (29)
You and I will have to face the fact that we can’t write the book, short story, essay or poem we want to write, but we can and will write the book, short story, essay or poem we’re capable of writing.
Again and again throughout our writing lives, we’ll have to forgive ourselves for not being where we want to be, to give our project what we want it to have.
Then sit down and bring everything you can to your project, and write the most beautiful butterfly you’re capable of writing, as the writer you are at this moment in time.
Click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below to listen to the full episode.
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (book of essays that includes “The Getaway Car”)
- #56: To Learn How to Write, You Have to Write
- Brain Pickings post that includes excerpts from “The Getaway Car”
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Featured image by Isabelle Kroeker.
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