Just as I received your most recent letter, I was sitting at my laptop listening to Bob Dylan. The song was “Girl from the North Country,” the 1969 version of the song that he does with Johnny Cash, and I’d just heard it the day before in the film “Silver Linings Playbook.” As I read your letter and even today as I’m typing my answer to you, I’ve been listening to that song, over and over.
Your letter this time was a tapestry for me. A stitching together. Pieces of a writer’s inner life.
It was about the stay-withness, the “apply seat of pants to chair” that is sticking to it as you write the draft. It was that first draft itself, the advice on writing it and how. How we receive advice on how to write, when that advice works and when it does not. The first draft itself, what we keep and what we don’t—the “untangling a wad of necklaces,” as you say so beautifully.
That’s the image I’ve been lingering with since first reading your letter this week. Untangling. It’s the question I’ve been asking myself all winter, really. What is at the center of the tangle, at the center of ourselves?
I’ve been doing some work with meditation these long winter days. Just yesterday in the group I’m in we talked about finding the center of our stories. My teacher held out her hand and drew a kind of mandala on the palm of her hand. Here at the center, she said, is the experience. And around that, the versions of response to that experience. This and this and this. All the versions are true, but what version do I receive and how? How to stop at the center of the mandala and breathe? I am only beginning to understand what she was describing.
Too often at the center of the tangle of necklaces I find, as you say, “the inner critic.” The fear that I’ll never be book-a-year author, prize winning author, maybe even an author at all. The mandala spins and spins and that is the fixed point in its center? Anxiety. Depression. Fear?
This morning, at least, I choose not.
This morning as I wrote my letter back to you, I’ve played “Girl from the North Country” three times as I typed. I even stopped this letter for awhile and looked up some stories about Dylan himself. Vagabond. Lover. Pretty, reckless boy.
How, as you say, to “outrun the inner critic?” The mess of a first draft, the years it takes to write that draft, the empty room that might be the only response I receive to my words.
At the top of one internet page, this. Nobody told Dylan he could sing. He did it without permission.
The mandala circles and turns, circles and turns. I stop it. Just there. Without permission. I want to believe, today anyway, that I can accept that version of the story.