Leaning Out Over the Abyss

Marilynne Robinson

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.” (Marilynne Robinson, author of Gilead.)

When I sit with my clipboard to do research and to write notes in my favorite café, often  mopping at sweat from having recently climbed off my bike, trying not to hear the conversation from moms pretending not to worry about their little ones getting into the right school, trying not to notice the plethora of tables with single occupants bent over laptops, earbuds in, but, especially when I pedal home to sit at my desktop PC and keyboard in my chilly basement office, the place where the serious writing begins, I like to think of the words appearing on the screen as those “thousand thousand reasons” to live. Though I know of course this isn’t at all what Robinson meant, it is for me, when I engage in this act called writing. At least, it is for me when I experience the “miracle” identified by Anthony Doerr (author of All The Light We Cannot See).

Anthony Doerr

Here is how Doerr describes his writing process at work (I’m quoting from Four Seasons In Rome, his short memoir about a year spent there writing when his children were infants): “That’s the miracle of writing, the place you try to find—when the room, your body, and even time itself cooperates in a vanishing act. Gone are the trucks rumbling outside, the sharp edge of the desk beneath my wrists, the unpaid electricity bill back in Idaho. It might seem lonesome but it’s not: soon enough characters drift out of the walls, quiet and watchful, some  more distinct than others, waiting to see what will happen to them. And writers come, too. Sometimes every fiction writer I’ve ever admired is there, from Flaubert to Melville to Wharton, all the books I’ve loved, all the novels I’ve wished I were talented enough to write.”    

When the world beyond the tight circle of lamp and screen begins its vanishing act, those thousand thousand reasons to live then begin to act like loved ones. Sometimes they ignore me, quarrel with me, interrupt me. Sometimes they leave me feeling abandoned. Unlike my actual loved ones, though, these thousand thousand reasons to live can be made better behaved. Says Doerr:

“I x-ray sentences; I claw away a paragraph and reshape it as carefully as I can, and test it again, and peer into the pages to see if things in there are any clearer, any more resolved. Often they are not. But to write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss.”

My thousand thousand reasons to live. I sense them, gathering like ghosts in the dark just beyond  the end of the last plank laid. Sometimes I resent them. Mostly I wish they’d just cooperate.



2 thoughts on “Leaning Out Over the Abyss

  1. Pingback: Leaning Out Over the Abyss |

  2. At times, this gift for writing is more of a burden, especially when the words won’t come for days on end. But at other times it’s like pure water, pure joy, pure ‘yes!’ and that is when it is worth the struggle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s