I’ll be having a typical day, moving through chores, obsessing and mulling. And in the middle of doing something mundane, like driving, I’ll suddenly for no reason have a flash of understanding which takes visual shape.
It is a sudden, mental glimpse of the enormous, surging vastness of—everything. All of human (and even pre-human) history, wars, suffering, heroism, chaos and ruin, grief, rage, tenderness, joy, glory, our tiny patch of time on earth.
Amidst that, I’ll see the steady making of art under all conditions and in every circumstance, in all media as much as in writing but particularly in writing, and alongside that the handful of notable artists’ names who just fifty years later, may be remembered—but are mostly soon forgotten.
Then the glimpse vanishes. And I’m back in present-tense striving and attachment, fussing and fuming over the portent of every least literary event, every crumb of writerly news.
And then it hits me very hard that the glimpse is a gift.
If that glimpse nullifies the playing field—meaning, you realize that all things being equal, nothing matters unless or until you decide it does—then you (the writer) have no choice but to choose again and again, with fresh comprehension each time, that this is what you want. You want to write, and to do the things that comprise a writer’s life.
It’s like realizing you actually like eating fruit, instead of complaining about a diet that insists you eat fruit. Free to eat anything, fruit’s what you’re after. You like the way it makes you feel.
This comprehension is—weirdly—kin to Flannery O’Connor’s famous, brilliant line in A Good Man is Hard to Find: “She’d of been a good woman if it had been somebody to shoot her to death every minute of her life.”
The glimpse is the shooter, so to speak.
A wise and dear friend, a debut novelist, speaks of her “awareness of how whatever we do is mostly forgotten; we’re replaced; people move on. And that’s okay. I’ve honestly come to see that as another absurdly ironic part of life, which in the end, I often find funny.”
She’s right, but there’s more. The payoff of continuing to choose to write is discovery: internal—where stories lead us; what they teach us—and external, in friendships with writers and readers who also teach us. We’re larger for it. As simple and ephemeral and nonetheless real, as that.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.