At the April meeting of the Houston Bay Area Writers’ League a fellow told the following story in response to my poem, The Task at Hand, and its first line, which reads, “Even the right word takes effort…”
As he told it, “A man worked at a studio in Italy where they cast huge bronze doors. His job was to perform the last step in the creative process: polishing the doors with a soft cloth. He stood all day long, day after day, rubbing and rubbing with his cloth until the doors gleamed. A visitor to the studio watched him for nearly an hour, certain he would tire, but the man labored on. Eventually, the watching man asked, “How do you know when you’ve completed the job?”
“It’s easy,” the man with the cloth replied. “They take the door away from me.”
When I heard the story, the parallels to a writer’s task were obvious. Everyone who has written – whether a term paper, a job application, a newsletter article or a blog – knows the temptation to toil away, polishing words until they gleam. Those who engage themselves in larger projects, such as essays, short stories or book-length fiction and non-fiction, can find themselves in the same situation as the door-polisher. Sometimes it seems as though a finite number of words can be rearranged an infinite number of times, and in an infinite number of ways. There are times when the effort leads to a sense of things being “right”, and times when an editor, a publisher, a deadline or simple exhaustion puts an end to the process by “taking the writing away.”
I experience the same dynamic in my own life. If you have read my About Me page, you know that I varnish boats for a living. Every profession and trade has its favorite sayings, and one of the favorites among varnishers is, “There’s no such thing as a last coat.” No matter how diligent the varnisher, no matter how attentive or cautious, there always will be insects and pollen, humidity, wind and fog, rain, dew, heat and manic yard crews with an assortment of mowers and blowers to bring frustration and chaos into the creative process. So, we continue on: sanding and varnishing over again, polishing the wood until it shines – or until they take the boat away.
The same dynamic touches all of us. In our early years, we design and cast and dream, beginning the process of creating a self. As time goes on, we begin to produce, expending more or less effort toward bringing that design and that dream to fulfillment. And, in the end, when the decisions have been made, the experience lived and the responsibility accepted, wisdom stands with her cloth, polishing our lives until they fairly gleam – until those lives are taken away.