Hannah Tinti, the author of The Good Thief, explains what she learned about patience and risk from the T.S. Eliot poem “East Coker.”
This story by Joe Fassler was published in The Atlantic:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
When a piece of writing strikes me, I’ll print it out and tape it into my journal. This poem I printed out twice: once for my notebook and another copy that I put up right above my desk. At the time, I was going through my own darkness, and it moved me profoundly, this idea of finding a way to wait. I read this poem over and over, each time I looked up from my desk, and learned to be content inside the struggle—understanding that there would be an end to my sadness, even if there was no way for me to know when that end would come. You can find peace within that. In the waiting.
After the publication of my last book, The Good Thief, I felt a lot of pressure to begin a new project. I work full-time, but at night and on the weekends I was putting in the hours, sitting at the desk, trying to get the word count in each day. Two years in, I had a few hundred pages but they were full of anxiety. Full of the fear of failure. Full of other people’s expectations. I was trying to write because I felt like I should be writing. But there was no life in those words.
At the same time, the rest of my life wasn’t going so great either. I went through a bad breakup. I was financially unstable. And several members of my family were diagnosed with cancer at the same time. I was spending a lot of time in hospitals, trying to help the people I love go through operations and treatments. It was a tough time.The breaking point came when I was pretty emotionally low, and decided to rent a cabin on Whidbey Island, which is a place I’d been before that had really helped my writing. I flew across the country and rented a car. Put it all on credit cards. And three blocks from the rental place, I got in a terrible accident: A woman ran through a red light and destroyed the car I was driving. I hadn’t taken the insurance, so that was another $15,000. The police had to pry the doors open with a crowbar. And I just felt, “Dear God, what else could happen? What else could go wrong?”
At the same time, once I sat on the sidewalk, and brushed the broken glass from my hair, I was grateful, deeply grateful, to still be alive. Who knows how much time any of us has? This was on my mind already, as I was worried about losing my family. They were fighting for each new day. In comparison, this accident was nothing. I got to my feet and limped back to the rental car place. I got a second car and continued on.
Somehow, hitting bottom gave me the courage to chuck everything I’d written and start from scratch.
But it took getting to a place where I had nothing to lose to write what I wanted to write, simply because I wanted to write it. I wrote with the idea that nobody was going to see the words. Without hope of any kind. And those pages turned into the first chapters of my new novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. Through it all, T.S. Eliot gave me much solace.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought. For me, that line means accepting that you don’t know the whole story yet, both in your life, and with whatever you’re trying to write. It requires trusting that things are going to make sense eventually, even if you can’t make sense of them now. When I try to force things, get too technical or overthink the plot, the story loses energy. Things go better when I work instinctually and trust my subconscious. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become easier to do this. Because I know it’s worked before.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- JOE FASSLER is the editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. He regularly interviews writers for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” series. He also covers the politics and economics of the American food system as a senior editor for The New Food Economy.