Your One Wild and Precious Life

by Beth Ann Bauman

Spalding MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults Faculty

I like this time of year, the longer light and the feel of sun on my skin.  Most days, I find myself rushing to be outside.  For me, these long days as we move toward the summer solstice are a beckoning, a call to possibility.  What haven’t I done that I want to do?  What’s next for me?  I’m thinking of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” poem and its wonderful last line:  “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Even in middle age, these words resonate for me and make me dream.  I consider how I might reinvent myself, my world, and especially my writing.  I’m ambitious and there are many stories I want to tell.  I mull over my in-progress work and dream about stories yet to be written, which I allow to deceive me; these ideas haven’t touched paper and so are pristine, beautiful, and affecting.  The vision is a little foolish, yet necessary maybe.  The dream fuels the work.  But the work, oh the work!  Once I start to capture it on paper, I’ll be confronted with the mess—how unformed and convoluted it is.  It’ll require so much wrestling, so much time, so much writing and rewriting.  And this scares me.  The longer I write the harder I find it, the more I’m plagued with doubts.  My expectations increase, and the bar is raised.  Knowing so much about craft increases the burden.  Worse, I’m so aware of my limitations.  And so I need to remind myself again and again why I do this and what I can do to make it easier.

I’ve compiled a list of reminders, motivations, encouragement, and tough wisdom to help me, and maybe you too.  If, like me, you struggle.

  1. I love to write.  Some of my best hours have been spent deep inside a story.  I’ll remember this when the work is going badly.
  2. A productive life isn’t glamorous.  It’s about routine and good habits that create momentum and allow me to get the work done.
  3. I plan to be a beginner each time out, to learn what my words might teach me.  To keep my intentions loose and flexible.
  4. I hereby give myself permission to write a piece of crap.
  5. With each new piece, I’m a pioneer.  Just because I wrote one book, two books, three books, doesn’t mean I know how to write another.  Each book comes with its own code to unlock.  It’s the challenge and the thrill.
  6. Story knowledge isn’t rational knowledge.  As the brilliant writer Richard Bausch says: “stop trying to be so intellectual about it: This work is much closer to the cave than it will ever be to the drawing room.”  Follow your intuitions and inspirations.
  7. To be an artist of any kind is live with uncertainty.   It’s troubling, for sure.  When uncertain, and lethargy or anxiety take hold, it’s tempting to cheat, to settle, to come up with a quick fix to a story’s trouble.  Instead, try to get comfortable with uncertainty.  Trust yourself and the time you need to invest.
  8. Writing is an act of rebellion.  It’s not about being nice, spewing forth easy platitudes, or playing to the crowd.  Screw the crowd.  Writing should be subversive.
  9. Thus, be brave.  Braver on the page than you are in your life.
  10.  Finally, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

How about you?  What’s on your list?  How do you motivate and support yourself?

Beth Ann Bauman is the author of a short story collection and two YA novels.  She’s the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Jerome Foundation.   

 

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2 thoughts on “Your One Wild and Precious Life

  1. nice essay, Beth, fine list of reminders and motivations, I especially responded to, “story knowledge isn’t rational knowledge,” and how being an artist means living with “uncertainty.” Thanks.

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  2. Beth, this is just what I needed to read today — and about once a week for motivation! The advice to be practical and get out of our way is vital. As someone who has written for years, as you have, I do feel like a beginner with each new project and at this age, I cherish that! I know you will help students find their way with perseverance and grace. Thank you.

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