into the unknown
This passage, from Martha Graham’s memoir, Blood Memory, seems like an appropriate start for the final essay of a very tough year. Graham laments the loss of the suppleness of her youth even as she continues to choreograph other dancers:
I don’t demand, at the beginning, any vestige of perfection. What I long for is the eagerness to meet life, the curiosity, the wonder…I miss the animal strength, the beauty of the heel as it is used to carry one forward into life. This, I think more than anything, is the secret of my loneliness.
Graham is talking about the decay of her instrument—the human body—but the nature of the instrument isn’t important. What’s important is the animal strength, the heel driving you forward. As writers, we get stuck not because we’re “blocked” but because we’re afraid of getting hurt, of learning that what we have inside isn’t all we hope it might be. From John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck:
Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice—it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit! Now would you come upstairs with me and get in my bed?
The only way through is to accept that whatever you write won’t be perfect, won’t even be very good. That’s OK. Write a little something, casually and imperfectly. Don’t make it a big thing. Make it a very, very small thing. Free your work from its profound meaning, its inarguable importance to the ages. Here’s Wallace Shawn in My Dinner with André:
If I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And, I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said. I just don’t think I feel the need for anything more than all this. Whereas, you know, you seem to be saying that it’s inconceivable that anybody could be having a meaningful life today.
In the film, André Gregory’s complaints with the world, the fears and anxieties that have taken him away from his theater directing, are specific to 1981 but even more relevant today, something Gregory acknowledges in his recent memoir. But Gregory went back to directing after his time in the wilderness, and he’s still making work forty years later. After years of spiritual searching, he realized that life and all its problems will still be here whether he makes his work or not. If the fires are going to burn anyway, why not make the work? Maybe Wally convinced Gregory to stop letting the outside world determine his inside world:
Isn’t it pleasant just to get up in the morning, and there’s Chiquita, there are the children, and the Times is delivered, you can read it! I mean, maybe you’ll direct a play, maybe you won’t direct a play, but forget about the play that you may or may not direct. Why is it necessary to, why not lean back and just enjoy these details? I mean, and there’d be a delicious cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake. I mean, why is it necessary to have more than this, or to even think about having more than this?
As your thoughts turn to the new year, stop yearning back toward some idealized, pre-COVID reality. And stop chasing some historical definition of success and fulfillment—as an expert, a writer, an artist, an entrepreneur—based on your flawed perception of someone else’s path. You’re never going to get “there.” These are all forms of escape from an unknown future into a mythological past. The storybooks are, indeed, bullshit.
Instead, gather yourself for what lies ahead, unknown because it is truly, fundamentally unknowable. That’s life’s central mystery and what makes it worth living. Plant your heel and take a step forward. Build something new, flawed but real. You are not here to make things perfect and you couldn’t if you tried all your life. Protecting your ego only stifles what you have to give, no matter how tiny and ephemeral that might be. You are not safe. Why not make the work?
Freedom as a creator lies in accepting the risk you already face. You and I are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts. In 2021, I urge you to go upstairs and get in that bed.