I am in Taos, New Mexico for the Taos Summer Writers Conference. I loved it so much last year, I declared to one and all upon my return that I am going to retire out here. And, my Life Experience has taught me that sometimes the sweet honeymoon period in a beautiful new place isn’t, in fact, representative of what it would be like to live there. So this year I’ve rented a tiny one-bedroom house on the outskirts of the town, bought groceries. I’m cooking and doing a bit of laundry, creating a sort-of-like-I-live here experience in addition to wallowing in the blissfully rejuvenating mudbath that a writers conference often is.
I am also wrassling with the (usual) writerly anxiety: is the story I submitted to my workshop any good? Will anyone laugh at my effort, tell me to give up? I know, intellectually, that this is unlikely. And I suspect that the story I’m currently laboring- procrastinating on requires a mastery of craft that I am to-the-bone afraid I lack.
I know my intentions for the story, my aim for the reader, but the way in which I imagine that happening requires a decades-leap-foward in time for my protagonist, and it’s a short story. I want to create something similar to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. But in six to eight thousand words. I’m not sure I have “the chops” to pull it off. I’m pretty sure she’s considered a genius, right? I am an increasingly-dumpy middle-aged woman who doesn’t do very well on those online IQ tests.
As I pondered this, I recalled a years-ago conversation with an acquaintance whose child was learning the Vivaldi double cello concerto, at the age of twelve. She didn’t think it was appropriate for someone who’d just entered puberty to attempt the music. I’ve heard similar sentiments from other parents and musicians: they’re too young to play (Mahler, the Bach cello suites, the fill-in-the-blank).
As usual, I am of two minds.
I agree: the depth and breadth of technical musicianship some of our children possess outstrip the depth and breadth of their Life Experience. The layers of emotion available in much of the musical canon cannot possibly be expressed by those who have never had their heart broken; sat with a dying parent, spouse, or child; seen their world shift, sighing, onto its side after gunfire, bombs, mortars.
And I disagree: making an imperfect, shallow-er version of beauty is tremendous. Copying out the “moves” of another writer, observing how they got from point x to point y: fantastic. Doesn’t mean I can do it, but if I don’t walk down the path, how will I ever know if I’m getting closer? How will I know what is available to me when my life throws the Big Issues at me if I haven’t seen them, touched them, tasted them, before I need them, or before I’m “ready” to play them?
One of my (now long-defunct) book clubs had a member who declared that she didn’t want to invite anyone under thirty to join. “They just don’t have enough Life Experience,” she said. Being close to thirty at that point, I was pretty offended: who are we to say what another’s experience is based on their Chronological Age?
Reynolds Price wrote the haunting A Long and Happy Life when he was twenty five. He notes in a later interview that it was dumb luck, in many ways, but nonetheless: if he’d listened to those who say “you can’t because you’re too young” instead of sitting down and trying to write, we wouldn’t have that gem of a book.
Who knows what resides within us unless we grant ourselves the time, space and permission to try to express it? Given the privilege many of us currently have, of having at least some time and space, let’s give ourselves and each other permission. Even though this means I now have to go wrassle with my incomplete, imperfect craftsmanship.