What is the amniotic fluid of a creative life? I'm not talking about the thousands of writers who drank themselves to death, who used barbiturates, who suffered and killed themselves by hanging or shotgun blast; I'm talking about a successful writing life, a happy writing life, which is what quite a few of us would like to have. It's different for each writer.
Some, like Emily Dickinson, like to be alone. James Baldwin needed to cross the Atlantic Ocean to write. Allen Ginsburg needed to be in the stream of life. Philip Roth spends his life alone with few distractions. It doesn't sound like fun to me. I want to be a good writer, but I have a husband, kids, three dogs and three cats, chickens and birds and a few friends. I want to stay in the hum and thrum of being in a family. I've done a lot of thinking about what sustains my creative life and my answer is love.
In August, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post which was wrong for many reasons. The repercussions were scolding on the part of friends, fury on the part of people I didn't know, and a lot of social media shaming. I gave myself months to process why I had written something so regrettable in the first place and to work at a soul level to become a more thoughtful person. Many writers wrote to me to say something very simple. "You screwed up. But you aren't the only person who has ever made a mistake, and you are loved."
It was easy to let my mind revert to rethinking my mistakes over and over and to thinking about people who had decided to "punish" me in some way. I spent considerable time thinking about how punishing someone and kicking them out from somewhere feels good, it feels righteous. But is it really the right thing to do? I never had a knack for punishing, and even now, I like to think the world is a big enough place for all of us. But none of that analysis really moved me toward grace. One of my friends suggested, "If they want to sew the scarlet A on you, just wear it." I gave that some thought and it wasn't a bad idea. I'd been sent out into the woods, but I needed to still move forward. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.
The great American revival song that many of us grew up knowing verse by verse begins, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now, I see." We want to believe in redemption. I want to believe in redemption, in forgiveness, in the idea that the literary world I live in, although fractured along family, friends and community lines, is really about love. Love of story, love of other writers and forgiveness for the ways in which we fail to live rightly always. "And the greatest of these is love," Paul wrote in Corinthians. I want to believe that I still live in a world of love and that world will sustain me to write again.
I grew up in absolute poverty, with mud in my boots and dirt in my hair. I didn't sleep in a bed until I was twenty. I put myself through college. Twenty-four was the first year of my life that I didn't have to sleep in a car or a campsite except for fun. I live very simply; I raise chickens. Like most kids who grew up poor, when everything went wrong, I took my family and we went to stay in the woods for a while. I like to remember that I can make it outdoors. If you are being turned outdoors, live outdoors. Live like the bears, find fish and honey. But a creative life is more easily accomplished indoors, which brings me back to what makes that amniotic fluid. The magic carpet of my creative life is love.
I have been listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton and my favorite song is "The Room Where it Happens." The first room where it happens was a room we don't like to think about at all. That's the room where we were conceived. There was a room or a car, or a train or a boat where the conception happened. But in all of our lives there are rooms where it happens. The room where someone decides to keep the castle gates closed. When I've applied for university teaching jobs, I don't usually find out what happened, but once someone told me, "I was in the room where it happened. This is what they said about you." I realized that it's sometimes better not to know. For a creative life to survive, I simply cannot dwell on the rooms where doors are being closed.
I need to sustain the ecosystem that will allow me to be in the room where good writing is happening. The greatest of these is love. To be loved, you must love. The world is wide enough for all of us; it's wide enough for a lot of love. I still have a long ways to go, but I am back in the room where it happens. Love is my magic carpet.