Barbara Quick and I met in 2011 at Toad Hall Writer’s Retreat in New Hampshire. We spent several days in a lovely setting, writing during the day and gathering in the evening for cocktails, dinner, and readings. I was struck by Barbara’s quiet charm and her insightful prose, and I’m happy to share Barbara’s musings on the theme of holding on and letting go.
Ambition. It feels like a small animal with sharp teeth that attached itself, early on, to my person. Maybe it’s a typical phenomenon for any child marked as precocious. There’s a sense of expectation that may or may not be justified. Precocious children get to the same place everyone else does—they just get there faster. Being an early reader with an affinity for metaphor doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll grow up to be a writer, to say nothing of growing up to be a writer with something important to offer the world.
I’m so tired of those tiny teeth sunk into me somewhere I can’t reach, like an itch I’d love to scratch and can’t.
Ambition makes me mean and small, because it’s never satisfied. Every milestone achieved gives a moment of relief—and then that voice starts up again, whispering in my ear, Is that all you’ve got? Hanging by its teeth from somewhere behind my shoulder, the creature bites harder, chews a little and denigrates everything I’ve ever done. It chews me up and spits me out. Work harder, it says. I expected more of you.
But who would ever write without ambition’s nasty bite? Yes, Emily Dickinson put her poems in a dresser drawer and hardly ever showed them to anyone. But she made sure they’d be found someday, found and read.
No one writes and throws their best, most polished words into the fire. Life itself will do that, eventually, when all our carefully crafted pages are like so many autumn leaves, giving up their tenuous hold and going into free-fall. Still filled with the juice of life but destined to desiccate soon, turning brown and dry and then broken by wind and footsteps, until what was once the glory of a tree is indistinguishable from the earth itself. All art will disappear one day, along with every trace of humankind.
Poor excuse, says the sharp-toothed one, goading me to use the time I have to say whatever it is I have inside me, and to say it well.
After sixty-one years of this symbiosis, I’ve realized that I have to work out a deal with the creature, who is never going to leave me, not as long as I possess the mental agility needed to write—nor would I want it to.
I let it gnaw on me. But I also encourage it to sleep, so it lets go its hold. Without those teeth sunk into my flesh, I gulp the good air of simply being alive. Other writers’ books and triumphs give me pleasure then (if the accolades are well deserved). I go from being a sullied creature dog-paddling in a muddy pond to a strong and graceful swimmer in a turquoise-colored sea, big enough for everyone who wants to be there.
There are so many books published, so many poems written. So many beautifully talented writers, filled with passion and humanity, alive in the world, each one of them with a unique point of view and a voice that matters.
I love swimming with them, immersing myself in their words and offering my words, too. Adding my voice to that chorus with its mysterious power to touch strangers—to make them cry, laugh and feel connected to the most intimate thoughts and emotions of a writer sitting all alone in a room or a crowded café or a library.
All writers need to remember (as do their parents and partners) that the physical act of committing words to a page is only the last step in the long—sometimes years long—process we call creative writing. Suffering is often part of that process—the wordless, helpless suffering experienced by a child. Staring out windows, long walks, reading, dreaming, looking for love in all the wrong places—traces of all these things that would seem to have nothing to do with writing can be found, by a good investigator, along the trail that leads to Art.
Whether we ever get there or not isn’t really the business of the writer. Time is the only true arbiter of literary merit, no matter how distressing it feels to come up short of one’s hopes and expectations of the world’s admiration and approval right now.
When the creature wakes, I know it’s time for me to return to that solitary place where I can find a cure for the nagging sense of discontent, the longing without an object, the loneliness that courses through my blood.
It’s not ambition that makes me write, but only the need to save myself once more. To open that magic door and walk through. I hold on tight—and then I let go.
Novelist, poet and journalist Barbara Quick is the author of Northern Edge, winner of the Discover Award, Vivaldi’s Virgins, which has been translated into 15 languages, and the young adult novel, A Golden Web. Her essays and articles have been commissioned by national and international journals, including the New York Times Book Review and National Geographic.