“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
― Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
In an effort to maintain an illustrious tradition and help make someone a true Michigander last week, I found myself teaching euchre. The Midwest-traditional card game is still a mystery to some, full of the unfamiliar vocabulary of trump, right and left bowers, screwing the dealer, and getting euched, and my companion for the night had wanted to learn for ages. So I began to explain, detailing which cards were most powerful, how to deal in the three-two-three pattern, how to follow suit, etc. After a few hands, my partner seemed to catch on, so I started tossing out strategy tips. It’s a fun game, I think, because the strategy is fairly easy to master. If you pay enough attention, you’ll almost always know what card to lay, and then there’s just enough left up to chance to make things exciting. After losing a hand we should have won, I noticed my partner’s strategic mistake. “If you can win a hand,” I suggested, “do it. There’s no sense in saving a good card for later.”
This was not a lesson I knew as a kid. I wanted to save everything good for later. I ate all the cereal bits out of Lucky Charms and the raisins out of trail mix, leaving huge mouthfuls of marshmallows and M&Ms behind. I did my math homework first, saving the fun of reading or history worksheets for later. I treasured sheets of stickers, using the “ugly” ones first and waiting for just the right handmade greeting card to adorn with my favorites.
I even catch myself doing this sort of thing today—boring American flag stamps go on bills, and I save my vintage botanical or Harry Potter or Great American Author stamps for letters to friends. Sometimes when I check out books from the library, I’ll read the one I think I’ll like least first in an effort to save the good one for the perfect lazy afternoon. I generally enjoy grading papers more than creating worksheets or writing lesson plans, so I’ll save grading for a “relaxing” or “mindless” treat later in the night. I wait to ask a new friend about the really important stuff until it’s the golden hour on a night when we don’t have to work in the morning and we’re both exactly one and a half beers in. Leftover ingredients sit in my refrigerator waiting for just the right clever use—why eat that goat cheese today on some crackers when you could transform it into something delicious and complicated tomorrow?
I wonder where this instinct comes from. Is it just a sophisticated version of procrastination? Is it conservatism, a desire for things to stay the same and never run out? Is it evolutionary, the post-war grandmother instinct to always have enough? Maybe it’s the result of my favorite prayer, one I learned from Caroline so many years ago: Annie Dillard’s “last forever!” Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking, the hope that someday things will be good enough, the situation worthy enough, that someday I’ll be happy enough to really enjoy this thing.
Here’s the reality. The marshmallows were soggy and the M&Ms melted. By the time I got to reading my assigned chapters, I was tired and frustrated by math. I found my childhood sticker collection in a box I unpacked last week, all the “good ones” still unused. I’ve had some of the same sheets of stamps for years, I regret wasting time on an average book at the beginning of this week’s vacation at the lake, and the grading just never gets done. We never end up talking about the important stuff. The goat cheese molds.
And worst of all for this context, sometimes I find myself saving writing. A good topic idea is too morose and just doesn’t fit well with the sunny July days. Someone else wrote about a similar topic, so I have to save this one for later. That topic feels like it will be easy, so I’ll save it for a month when I’m in a hurry. I know these are excuses, less about saving or conserving and more about avoiding and procrastinating. And yet every month I “have nothing to write about.” Topic is always my enemy, the blank page imposing and mocking. What about all those good ideas you had? it asks. If I didn’t write them down, they’re gone. Knowledge and experienced unshared. Ash in the safe.
I’ve learned that it’s when writers here tackle the good stuff, when they “spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away” that the post calvin really succeeds. I see it when someone writes about something recent, a wound or a loss that still hurts. I saw it last month, when we dove in and wrote about that most intimate of acts—sex. I thought no one would do it, that we’d scare off writers and readers. But it was one of our most trafficked months ever. Comments poured in. We wrote freely and abundantly and found out a lot. And I see it this month, as we say goodbye to a big crop of regular writers, people I’ve known via writing for five years now. They’ve written on topics far and wide, and I’d wager that some of the most successful pieces are times they gave it, gave it all, gave it now.
I’m enamored with this community and the voices we amplify. Thank you, writers (especially Carolyn, Paul, Bart, Elaine, Catherine, Cassie, Andrew, Paula, Lauren, and Jack) for writing about the good stuff. Thank you, new writers and all the old faithfuls, for keeping this space vibrant and educated and loud. Keep spending those ideas. New ones will come along.
Abby Zwart (’13) teaches high school English in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spends her free time making lists of books she should read, cooking, and managing the post calvin.