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The Artist's Sister in the Garb of a Nun, by Sofonisba Anguissola

Farm to Tablet: On Creative Guilt

Last week, I stalled out on my current novel-in-progress. It happens sometimes, yet despite its relative regularity, it can send me into tailspins of despair. What if my book stops speaking to me? What if I have hopelessly lost my way?

I had sat down that morning eager to flesh out the next scene I'd envisioned, but when I began, so, too, began the telling twinges of misery, dropping down into my head space like coils of used fly tape. I kept walking into them, my hair sticking to their yellow glue, my ears droning with the flies' caught buzz. Finally I was forced to conclude that I had stepped off the path at some mysterious point and no longer knew the way forward. If the writing is making me miserable, then I am writing the wrong thing—this edict has never failed me. And so, after staring at my legal pad for half an hour to ensure I was helplessly stuck, I stopped.

We needed chicken feed and blood stop powder for hoof trimming, so I drove to Chelsea Farmers Supply. Then, aimless, I wandered to Agricole for a coffee and poked around Serendipity Books for a long while, picking up anything that caught my attention—a book of paintings by Edward Hopper, a collection of hopeful poems, novels I'd listened to but never held in my hands. It was cold outside, with the wind whipping bits of snow malevolently sideways like spitballs, and it nourished me to step inside the warm shop and peruse the shelves slowly, sip my coffee, and pet the store dog, Odie, a gentle and hospitable creature.

Almost as hospitable as these little fellows

The next day I could still feel my stuckness, and so I took myself on a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts for their special exhibition of women artists from Renaissance-era Italy. The painters' self-portraits stared me down, their measured countenances of hard-fought confidence. I looked for a long time at a sketch by Sofonisba Anguissola of a woman laughing—an innovation then. I noted the contrasts between men's and women's paintings of the era, particularly the scenes of sexual conflict, such as that of Susanna and the elders. Men generally portrayed Susanna as coquettish, even eager, her face turned toward her assailants, her body beckoning. But female painters captured Susanna's resistance, her turning away, her terrified face. In other words, they captured a more essential truth.

Despite the subtext of this exhibition—that the perspectives of women and other marginalized groups must be heard, that creation requires astonishing courage, and that the vision of these women still speaks to me a half millennium later—I drove home from Detroit with a growing sense of guilt. Must be nice, the little voice began from the crawlspace of my brain. Must be nice to spend an entire Tuesday at an art exhibit while everyone else is working their butts off. Must be nice to wander luxuriously through a bookstore while Putin tries to plunge the world into war. Writing already gives me a good deal of guilt, but when I suspend my daily work, when I make a deliberate effort to refill my well—at these times the guilt hits even harder. The voice asks, over and over, How dare you? What gives you the right to go gallivanting off in the middle of the day? What gives you the right to move through the world so freely, and with such flaunted privileges? How will your meager work ever justify these hours?

My attempt to justify the hours

I've looked high and low to find the origins of this voice. Did my parents ever say such things? No, I am happy to report, they didn't. Aunts, uncles, grandparents? Not that I can recall. Sure, a handful of clueless relatives and acquaintances have muttered variations along the must-be-nice theme, and those have certainly stung. But I have never met this particular speaker. That is to say, I have constructed this voice myself, with generous assistance from our chauvinistic and production-driven overculture. That's right, folks. The call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE.

I have tried to evict this particular tenant, but he stubbornly sticks around. I assail him with endless arguments. But books have saved my life, I say. But I need to write, I tell him, or I will languish and fade. But society needs stories, I insist. We need stories to understand each other, and to understand ourselves. Stories teach us to care. Stories remind us, in a million different ways, that our work has purpose, that what we do matters, that we are much more similar than we think, that a human being stands at the other end of the gun. Stories broaden us, remind us of what greatness and pettiness, of what cowardice and self-sacrifice we are capable. And how else do books get borne, if not for human turtles like myself who sit down, day after day, year after year, in the humble service of a short stack of pages they can hand to someone else and say, “This is you, and this is me. This is our world, and its beauty and weirdness and hilarity and pain. Read this and rest from your worries. Read this and come away from it ever-so-incrementally changed.”

Our world, with rooster

Still, after this long, pleading litany, the voice remains. Dostoevsky's words may have been urgent, but you, my friend, are no Dostoevsky. You could find much more pressing things to accomplish with your precious time.

And I must admit that yes, perhaps I could. Perhaps I could adopt a whole household of kids who need homes. Perhaps I could dedicate myself to the maybe-impossible process of certifying our farmlet so that we could donate our eggs and meat to local food pantries. Perhaps I could return to my previous career of teaching ESL and help immigrants gain more footholds.

And yet, here I still sit, scribbling away, stockpiling my potentially insignificant pages. Still I persist in all of the small things that pull at my soul. I push my seeds down into the potting soil. I give what we can to Ukrainian relief. I harness the sheep and trim their hooves. I sing with the Mennonites. I count the chickens and find the one who has wandered away. I walk my beagle down to the marsh river to see whether or not it is running. I paint with my children and read them stories. And when I find that I've emptied my well, I strike out to fill it.

Regardless of guilt

I'm sure I could make different, more short-sighted decisions about what to do with my life. Yet I carry a deep sense, beyond doubt, that I have been called to these tasks, and I know of no greater Divine directive than to follow the compulsions planted within me. My work is small work, yes, and it may very well come to little, but it is good work nevertheless, it is what I can do, and I'm not sure I could stop doing it, even if I tried.

Yesterday, in my lectio divina practice, I came to the scene where a woman anoints Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume. Some of Jesus' company take issue with the act. She should have sold the perfume, they say, and given the money to the poor. They ask, in a pitch-perfect echo of my own inner voice, What is the point of all this extravagant waste? But Jesus comes to her defense, and it is his words I will return to when this guilt again raises its accusations. “Let her alone,” he says, his head still dripping from her gift. “Let her alone. She has done what she could.”

"What [I] could." In case you missed it,
my debut novel is now available for pre-order here.
And thank you for reading, as always. 
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Writer · 14641 Waterloo Munith Rd · Grass Lake, MI 49240-9495 · USA

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