There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.–Martha Graham
I spent a weekend in the woods, off the grid, without cell service or wi-fi for my friends’ wedding. They chose to make it a weekend affair, and rather than gifts, asked their guests to pitch in and help with the set-up and take-down of the camp. It produced a feeling of instant community, even as many of us were strangers to each other. People brought a variety of skills to bear—some were good at the heavy lifting, others at the delicate small touches that make a wedding lovely. There were those of us who helped behind the scenes, in the kitchen, in the unseen places, and those who trimmed and tweaked the most seen: the brides’ wedding attire.
How does this relate to writing, you ask?
I came home thinking about our consumer-driven model of doing everything, even art. In the land of the rugged individual, we are encouraged to think of ourselves first, and separately, to focus the lens firmly on our own navels and then zoom in close. Moreover, if you write a book, the American-minded goal is to become famous and rich first, and the other benefits—to strive after meaning, to deepen your writing practice, to sink your creative teeth into an experience that enriches yours and others’ souls—get lost.
What if we wrote not to please but to give, to serve? What if every story or essay or book series you wrote was not just an attempt to focus on the self and its rewards, but an opportunity to unearth the mysterious materials of existence and hold them up to the light for collaboration and exploration? What if we invited feedback and conversation as a way of connecting?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ego as it applies to writing, and how much we can and should take credit for. Though Martha Graham’s quote above has been posted to the point of cliché, it’s such a wonderful one to remind us of a few things: our time on this planet is short, we are channels for aspects of the mysterious source that unfurls us each day, and wouldn’t it be nice if, like the guests at my friends’ wedding, we used this uniqueness inside of each of us to create something new, connected, meaningful, something that benefits more than just ourselves?
What’s more is a quote I borrow from one of my favorite books for artists and writers: Art & Fear. The authors offer this gentle antidote to the constant berating that can come to an artist: “Ask your art what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.”
I think if we do more listening: to what the writing needs, to how our writing can touch, reach and connect others, we can more easily surmount the blocks and trials, the frustrations and dread so common to our craft. And I believe that deeper success will also follow.