Still Life with Apricots: Tolerating the Writing Process

The following is an important lesson for writers, inspired by an incident at a Paris open-air market many years ago. There I encountered a fruit vendor demanding that customers take the bruised apricots along with the perfect apricots. What an excellent reminder for writers, who must take their bad writing along with their good!

The writing process is quite a bit harder to tolerate than most people, writers included, imagine. It is hard to tolerate for all of the following reasons and more.

  • Only a percentage of the work that we do turns out well, and only a percentage of that percentage is really excellent, meaning that we have many “failed” efforts to endure.
  • The writing process involves making one choice after another (for instance, “Should I send my character here or should I send my character there?”) and choosing provokes anxiety.
  • The writing process involves going into the unknown, which can prove scary, especially if where we are going is into the recesses of our own psyche.
  • The thing called “inspiration,” which is one of the great joys of process and without which our work would prove lifeless, comes only periodically and can’t be produced on demand.

A main headline as to why the writing process can feel so daunting is that not everything writers attempt will turn out beautifully, that many efforts will turn out just ordinary, and that a significant number will prove flat-out not very good. A novelist pens a brilliant first novel—and the second one is unreadable. What a disappointment! How demoralizing! But these are everyday occurrences in the lives of writers, and the rule rather than the exception. Learning to tolerate this reality allows us to write book after book, the wonderful along with the mediocre.

What to do? Of course, you will want to do everything required to make the work good, including cracking through resistance, getting quiet, showing up, not leaving too soon, honestly appraising, and all the rest. But, in addition to all that, you will want to maturely accept the reality of missteps, messes, and unhappy outcomes.

To help with this effort at maturity, try the following visualization. Hang a still life of a bowl of apricots on a wall in the room that is your mind. Have that bowl be filled with gorgeous, ripe apricots and also with mottled, discolored, overripe apricots. The lesson of this painting? You must calmly and gracefully take the bad with the good.

The painting you hang is not being hung for its beauty. It is hung there to remind you about the reality of process. It is hung there to remind you that you must take the bad with the good as you create. It is hung there to remind you to be your most mature self, the you who understands that you are bound to produce work all along the spectrum from lousy to brilliant.

Among his hundreds of cantatas, Bach’s most famous cantata is number 140. His top 10 would likely be numbers 4, 12, 51, 67, 80, 82, 131, 140, 143 and 170. What about the others? Are some merely workmanlike and unmemorable? Yes. Are some not very interesting at all? Yes? Was Bach obliged to live with that reality? Yes! As must you, with regard to your writing.

Hang a painting of a bowl of apricots filled with lovely, ripe apricots and unlovely, overripe apricots in a prominent place on one of the walls in the room that is your mind. It is not there to reprimand you, chastise you, or discourage you. Rather, it is there to remind you about the reality of process, a reality that no writer can escape or evade.

Every once in a while, maybe when your creative work is going poorly or when you’ve created something that fails to meet your standards, stand in front of that painting, sigh, and murmur, “Process.” Process is exactly what it is; honoring its reality and calmly living with that reality are choices you get to make. I’ve now had more than 50 books published and each one is an adventure in process. I come to each book with the same guarantee—that there is no guarantee. And, sometimes, I am very surprised and pleased by the outcome!

Find out about upcoming programs with Eric Maisel at Kripalu.