Despite being aware that April 14 would be my ten-year anniversary with WordPress, the nice, congratulatory posting in my notifications tab took me by surprise.
In the past, these anniversaries have come and gone with little more than a glance, a moment of reflection, and recommitment to another year of writing. But ten years is ten years, and something more in the way of acknowledgment seemed appropriate.
With that in mind, I’ve decided to republish three of my favorite posts, interspered with new material. This one, slightly revised from 2013, describes how the title of my blog — The Task At Hand — came to be.
In 2007, wanting to learn how to post images to the web, I established a page in the blog section of Weather Underground. I’d joined the site during the 2005 hurricane season — the year which brought both Katrina and Rita — and I was comfortable there. At that point, I didn’t think of myself as a blogger. I simply was exploring: experimenting and learning.
My first entry included a recipe for pecan pie, with a few photos of the Texas hill country thrown in for good measure. My second post, a short entry detailing a trip through Kerr and Kendall counties, veered off into memoir. Surprised by a few positive comments, I posted a third time, and then a fourth.
Two months and a few posts later, I joined a group known as the Bay Area Writers’ League. I’d never thought of myself as a writer, but I was curious to see what people who defined themselves as writers might look like.
As it turned out, they looked very much like me: intrigued by words, eager to tell their stories, willing to listen to the halting efforts of beginners, and open to learning from published authors.
At the January 2008 meeting, I was introduced to the concept of flash fiction, and decided to participate in the monthly contest: a challenge to respond to a photo posted in the group’s newsletter with no more than a hundred words of either poetry or prose.
When the photo was published, I recognized a modern Sisyphus immediately. Too clever for his own good, Sisyphus may have brought his punishment upon himself, but images of his plight have compelled artists for centuries, and I thought this was a good one.
Unfortunately, as I gazed at my first challenge, I had no idea how to cross the gap between image and words without falling into cliché.
(The photo, I now know, comes from Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Texas)
Days later, while I hand-sanded a boat rail, thinking about nothing in particular, a fully-formed line came to mind: Even the right word takes effort.
Looking at the teak hand rail, the sandpaper, and my hands, I considered. Over the next few days, as I worked and word-shaped, recording phrases on the back of used sandpaper, I discovered — quite to my surprise — that I’d written a poem titled “The Task At Hand.”
Even the right word takes effort.
Quarried from a crevice of the mind
it stumbles into context from a surprised tongue
then slips again toward silence.
Breaking chains of metaphor,
pulled from its page by the gravity of doubt,
it defies similitude
and heaves past frail allusion,
blocking passage after passage
with its heavy presence
until turned and nudged and tried again
for perfect fit
by one who never tires —
the Sisyphean poet.
At that month’s meeting, my poem won the little contest, pleasing me immensely. When April 14 came and I registered my new blog at WordPress, there was no question that its title would be The Task At Hand. Though still a non-writer, it nonetheless seemed to me that I’d written a writer’s poem: a poem with room for all of the discipline, surprise, faith, and teeth-gritting perseverance that writing requires.
Meanwhile, back at the Bay Area Writers’ League, I followed the custom of reading my winning poem aloud at the next month’s meeting. After I finished, a fellow wearing a plaid flannel shirt and mismatched socks came up to me. “So,” he said. “This your first poem?” I said it was, and that I’d just started writing. “Then let me tell you something,” he said. “That poem’s like a suit of clothes that’s two sizes too big. That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You keep writing, and in a few years you’ll start growing into it.”
Remembering his words today, I smile with new understanding. He didn’t say, “In a few years, you’ll have grown into it.” He said, “In a few years, you’ll start growing into it.” He was right.
After about two years, when I changed the tagline forThe Task At Hand from A New Writer’s Search for Just the Right Word to the slightly different A Writer’s On-going Search for Just the Right Word, I received an email from a reader who asked an interesting question.
She wrote, “Whenever I search for your blog, my first instinct is to look for The Task at Hand – A Writer’s On-going Search for the Perfect Word. I couldn’t help wondering why you chose right instead of perfect. I look at perfect as having more of an emotional component to it — the satisfaction that it is just the perfect word with the perfect feel. The word right carries with it a sense of correctness or strictness. I was just curious about your thinking.”
The question intrigued me. My first impulse was to say that nothing in our world is perfect: no person, no flower, no performance, no meal. Imperfection is woven through the fabric of life, and to demand perfection in words is to risk bloodless writing.
But it also occurred to me that the phrase itself matters. “Just the right word” suggests not only the end but the means: the process of writing itself. Hearing the phrase “just the right word” takes me back to the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the version I learned as a child, Goldilocks tries out the Bears’ porridge, chairs, and beds, finding them in turn too hot, too large, and too hard. Only after going on to experience too cold, too small and too soft was she able to say of her final choice, “This is just right.”
For years, it’s seemed to me that Goldilock’s experience is a wonderful analogy for the experience of writers who sit and sift through piles of words, rejecting one and then another as being too long, too short, too foreign, too street, too archaic, too hip. Eventually, whether from a dictionary, a doodle, or the crevices of the mind, a word emerges. With a sigh of deep satisfaction the writer eases it onto the page, saying, “There. That’s just right.”
It’s critical for beginning writers – or accomplished writers, for that matter — to recognize the truth that a search for just the right word signals neither inexperience nor inadequacy. Even the best among us hint at the necessity of that search, leaving the record of their words to nourish us as we continue the process of growing into our own.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.
~ from “Little Gidding” – T.S. Eliot