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On Self-Forgiveness

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

For centuries, in Catholic European countries, as soldiers were preparing for battle a priest would grant them general absolution from their sins. I do the same sort of thing before I begin to write. Both soldier and priest, I absolve myself in advance of all the offenses that I am about to commit against Literature. Then I take a deep breath and plunge into the fray.

But it wasn’t always like this. For a long time, my creative life was ruled by the notion that to aim for anything less than perfection was a slap in the face of the Muse. Even worse, it rendered me subject to ridicule. I blame this all-or-nothing, good-or-bad, black-or-white attitude on my early violin practice, when, as my fingers wandered in the trackless desert of the fingerboard, I had to somehow land on the desired note, neither flat nor sharp, but exactly right. Not only did this cause me great anxiety, it also made me so angry that my first instrument had twin toothmarks on the edge of the top plate, where I had bitten it in frustration. I knew how I should sound—I should sound exactly like my father, whose playing I had from earliest infancy absorbed into the marrow of my bones—and I couldn’t stand myself because, at age ten or twelve, I didn’t.

Needless to say, I no longer play the violin.

So how is it that I am able to write? Heaven knows that I have read enough writers of genius to know how far I fall from their standards, their vividness of perception and expression, their attention to detail, their charm and sheer intelligence. I will never be able to bring a cat to life on the page like Colette; or call up childhood memories like Proust; or invent characters with the wit and compassion of Elizabeth Strout.

It may be a gift from the Universe, or a gift from the aging process, or pure luck, but these days I usually manage  to be both soldier and priest and forgive myself in advance for the all the clichés, overwrought metaphors, clunky rhythms, accidental rhymes, and faulty logic that I am about to disgorge onto the screen. Unlike the soldier, however, I have the chance to redeem myself in subsequent drafts, to cut out the worst offenders, and add things that were missing. The “shitty first draft” (in Anne Lamott’s immortal words) is simply an opportunity for endless paring and scrubbing.

But even with multiple revisions made easy by the computer (how did writers manage in the days before the Delete button?), I know that the time will come when I have to stop working on a given piece, and that the result may be pedestrian and even soporific.  And so I forgive myself, before, during, and after the writing. I simply do the best I can, and leave the rest to fate, or God, or the Muse.

The same process of pre-forgiveness applies to my drawing, where I feel especially vulnerable. I did after all once make a profession of reading and teaching French lit, but my only training in drawing was in geometry class, when we were taught to draw a cube. Every time I publish one of my drawings I feel as naked as a snail that has lost its shell. So as I set out my pens and pencils I forgive myself in advance for the shaky lines, the wrong proportions, the muddy colors, the lack of imagination, verve, and oomph.

But what choices do I or any of us have? We can stay safe from criticism and possible ridicule and put away our brushes, our computers, and our violins, or we can forgive ourselves in advance and sally forth to do good battle in the battlefields of Art, and feel more alive in the struggle than at any other moment of the day.  As G.K. Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

But does the world, I ask myself, really need another tiny essay, accompanied by a tiny drawing, about my tiny life? The answer is No. But I need to write the essay and make the drawing, and if that is self-indulgent…well, I forgive myself for that too.


6 Responses

  1. I do it as well as I can, and then I stop.

    So far, two big fat novels have appeared after enough time for this system.

    I love them – and they’re plenty good enough (I dumped Impostor Syndrome years ago) for me to wonder how the heck I wrote them – and no one else seems to be complaining except a few people who think you can do good real fiction in less than half the space (I’d love for them to tell me exactly how they would accomplish that) than is NECESSARY.

    Eventually, I’ll even learn how to market! (So far I have to drag people off into a corner and force it down their throats because I think it will be good for them, and then they usually agree – for various meanings of ‘people’ and ‘agree.’)

    But I don’t let it bother me. Nope. I just sail along, and when I can wrestle the brain into submission for a while, I write.

    If you didn’t write, I’d miss it. If you need absolution from outside, any time, ask. Or, better still, assume it will be granted.

  2. But then again perhaps the world does need another piece of writing with a small drawing to illustrate the life of a real person instead of AI, cartooning and dumb videos💥

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