Our Words at a Moment in Time
February 21, 2018 § 18 Comments
By Patrice Gopo
Last month, I returned my essay collection’s approved edits to my publisher. I hit the “send” button and sat for a moment awash in that momentary burst of triumph.
Then threads of worry began to creep into my celebratory mood—threads of worry I tried to banish with the purchase of a book, a necklace, and a donut too. Back in September when I’d first turned in my manuscript, I believed I’d written the best essay collection I could possibly write. Several months later, while reviewing the suggested edits, I spotted adjectives I needed to cut and several paragraphs I found excessive. I rewrote a metaphor and changed the word choice in more than a handful of places.
Now there will be no more revisions. There will be no more changes. The words I returned will be nearly the same words I will see later this year printed in the pages of my book. In the interim, however, I will continue to write and read and study the craft of writing. As a result, the writer I will be when I open my book will not be the same writer I am today. The writer I become in the future will have a greater ability to see the flaws in my work. And this fact scares me.
The rush of triumph—and the celebratory donut—doesn’t negate the worry that one day I may find my work wanting.
Last summer I had the opportunity to participate in a writing residency at the Collegeville Institute, a week of quiet, peace, and solitude on a college campus in rural Minnesota. I woke early each morning and took a walk beside a lake, sharing the new day with several deer and a couple of storks. The sun rose above the water, streaks of pink and orange staining the horizon and radiating with what I considered to be writing inspiration.
One afternoon I took a break from working on my essay collection and visited a nearby pottery studio. The manager invited me on a tour. As he spoke about the history of the studio, I stared at a row of rounded vessels almost—but not quite—identical in shape and style, the damp clay still dark grey in color. Full, leafy branches twisted around the curve of each vessel—except for the last one. Here I saw what the other pots would become, the branches soon removed, revealing a delicate pattern imprinted into the clay.
“We have a 300-year supply of clay,” the manager said. He talked of generations in the future when other artists would use the same source of clay the studio uses now. He mentioned how the presence of the clay reminds everyone that the studio is not one artist. Rather, the studio arises from the collected work of many.
I was taken with this idea of enough clay to last 300 years. Long after we are all gone, a potter none of us would ever know would throw pots made of the same material. Immediately I thought of a verse fragment from my Christian faith. “…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” A great cloud of participants in a long creative tradition.
A 300-year supply of clay. I return to this idea now in the aftermath of approving my edits. I try to conceive of the vast number of objects artists will create over the lifetime of a 300-year supply. But I also remember those branches with full leaves pressed into the bodies of a row of vessels similar in shape and form. I recall the one vessel with the visible imprint.
Is it possible to feel both small and significant in a single moment? Because I do. The medium I throw on the blank page is not part of a lengthy—but finite—supply of clay. Instead, a supply of words without end. A reality that scoops my work up in the ongoing legacy of writers before me and writers not yet born.
Perhaps what is true is that when we look back on work we wrote four months ago or four years ago or eventually four decades ago, our contributions may seem flawed and inadequate if considered in isolation. Perhaps some degree of all we create will at some point fail to reflect the writer we become—even with our greatest triumphs. That one vessel with the leafy imprint offered a fleeting beauty that pales in significance to all the work that will ultimately originate from not just that potter but—more importantly—also from that supply of clay. But the thought of that vessel alongside hundreds of years of created pottery made me gasp.
Maybe we find the freedom to let go of worry about how we will perceive our words in the future through the act of seeing our creation as one artifact that is part of a greater whole. A contribution to both the words written before and the words that will come after. It is not perfection that defines the worth of my contribution. Rather, it is the willingness to offer to this ongoing creative tradition the best work I can as the writer I am at a particular moment in time.
Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow, and her essay collection about race, immigration, and belonging will release this summer. Please visit her website to read more of her work and sign up for updates about her book.