I spent the weekend on Lake Michigan with some of my best writing friends. We talked a lot, laughed a lot, worked, sang songs well into the night, even gave a sparsely attended but enjoyable reading at a small-town library. I wish I could say I came back refreshed, feeling rested. I came back sick, exhausted, and a little on edge, staring down large stacks of papers needing grades.
But I did experience a different kind of refreshment–a renewed sense of two things, which are not unrelated: identity and determination.
John Gardner wrote about the value of a writing community as a way for writers to feel “not only not abnormal but virtuous.” Maybe it’s because I teach at a small liberal arts school, a “teaching college,” that I feel pressure to think about classes and pedagogy more than anything else. Teaching and its culture and accoutrements are consistently rewarded on my campus. Scholarly endeavors outside the classroom are often praised but not as often accommodated within the busy, busy life of the university.
Therefore, it’s particularly important to me to regularly situate myself within those contexts where creative writing activity is seen as inextricable from core identity, where “productive” means generating new material or revising recent work or gaining new insight into one or both. I felt that keenly over the weekend, and I feel it now.
I also came home with a renewed sense of determination. I want to work harder, push myself a little more, and–most important of all–pick myself up after failure and fail better. I did those things this afternoon, in fact, in spite of this terrible cold, congestion, and asthmatic hacking.
It seems natural that determination would flow out of identity. Feeling more like your best self should indeed be a corrective to complacency, should make you want to reach for dearly held goals. The daily-ness of life often gets in the way of calmly working toward dreams I’ve developed and carried with me over the last several years. But I’m feeling motivated just now, and taking advantage of that creative energy.
Both identity and determination rose out of an essential part of the weekend gathering: relationship. The point of retreating with writing friends–for me, at least–has not been accomplishment so much as relationship. Though I have a hard time relating due to my particular communication deficits, my friendships with a small group of writers of faith have been a sustaining force in my life, one for which I am eternally gratefully.
When we get together, we seem to enter into an unspoken but powerful agreement to “bear one another’s burdens.” This may take the shape of simply passing a dish at the dinner table. In our case it might mean awarding ridiculous nicknames to each other, letting each one know that he or she exists in a particular way when we’re all together, a way that adds a distinct and substantial dimension to our lives. Other times, bearing one another’s burdens means listening carefully for when a joke-filled conversation suddenly reveals itself as important, life-giving.
Mere presence in the room seems to indicate a level of investment among those who wield language alone day after day. Even as I recall the waves of Lake Michigan becoming almost ocean-like in the storms of a Midwestern autumn, my anxious spirit senses a rest better than sleep and good health. If this past weekend results in no major publications, grant money, or prizes (and with the talent and track record in that lake house, it could easily result in all three), it has surely already invited something much more important, something like covenant.