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A Try

I was recently listening to a Radiolab podcast that featured writer Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that one).  She spoke about inspiration, and how she has remained creative and productive as a writer.  Earlier in her career, she had learned to talk her to inspiration–as if it were outside of her. “TELL ME YOUR NAME,” she had demanded of  her book, “Eat, Pray, Love” when at the final stages of preparation before publication, the completed manuscript had no title.  After yelling at it–literally–for days, she woke up one morning and there it was: the answer, the title.  “I can feel the difference when something is produced purely from my own sweat and blood, and when something is given to me,” she said. A writer has to do the work, she confirmed, of course. But those moments of pure inspiration, those creative gifts that seem to originate from outside of oneself, those are the moments that interrupt the rest of the writing process and make it great.

Last summer while studying French, I learned that the word “essay” is an adaptation of the French verb, “essayer.”  Plainly, “essayer” means “to try.”  An essay–a try.  These linguistic connections are some of the simple pleasures of language study: with the acquisition of a single foreign word, even the most native term can take on a whole new depth of meaning.  An essay–a try.  It made so much sense to me.

And I think it resonated with me because of the creative process that Gilbert described.  When I sit down to write, I am trying–trying to write well, yes–but really, truly, I am trying to be open to that something else…that something “given” that Gilbert describes as inspiration.  In that sense, I am trying not to write at all.  The best stuff on the page doesn’t originate from within me. It hits me, smack in the head, while I’m mid-way through a sentence at my keyboard. I can feel that it arrives from a different place.  From where?

Theologian Gordon Kaufman describes God as Creativity.  I’m not sure it’s God, but I do think, whatever it is, it helps me to believe in God.  There is something deeply sacramental about this experience within the writing process: in the relationship between a writer and her words, something good and beyond interrupts.  Mystery interrupts what is otherwise mundane and laborious. Isn’t that precisely the experience of the world the compels me toward the Divine?

It is the end of finals here at Harvard–and the completion of my Master’s degree, at that. And this is the time of every semester when we find ourselves asking, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” All the pressure, all the essays, ALL the essays.  Still, I keep trying and trying and trying–because, when I ask myself “Why do I do this? WHY do I do this?” I realize I am still waiting, crazy like Elizabeth Gilbert, for the mystery to interrupt. I want to keep waiting, to keep writing. An essay–a try.

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3 Comments

  1. Jen says:

    I listened to that radiolab too and was thinking of you when I was listening to it. I’d say you have some pretty dang food “tries.”

  2. Maggi says:

    All bow at the altar of Elizabeth Gilbert! haha. As always, great post Jess.

  3. jaisyjoseph says:

    Jess, this is so long over due! I remember reading this a while back and realizing that some themes resonate with something I once tried to write about the art of writing. It’s encouraging to read that you approach this act in the same way 🙂

    The Art. (2010)

    Writing.
    simple and complicated.
    bridge, yet chasm.
    epiphany or banality.

    At times you encourage discovery
    by making the intangible, tangible.
    by enabling what is within to be given to the universe –
    to the Absolute.

    At times you lead to shadows
    with your inability to fully capture the intangible
    with your ability to distort the tangible –
    without the Absolute.

    There is tension.
    There is fear.

    Once it is given,
    How will it be received? Who will receive? Will it be received?
    Is it worthy to be received?
    Is it worthy to be given?

    The challenge is to
    remain absolutely faithful to the present,
    for that is all that can be known with a semblance of certainty.
    The past is always perceived through a biased lens
    and the future remains mysterious.

    The fear vanishes,
    The tension fades,
    when one is sincere to oneself
    and to the present
    when one suspends oneself for a moment
    and enables the spirit to guide the hand

    across the keyboard, across the page
    in all that is
    written.

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