In some sense, faith is what I'm all about and also what can disappear in the blink of an eye. For a writer, it is as simple as words coming easily one day and failing you the next. During bleak times, when my characters sound like so many holiday-drunk relatives—and not the garrulous kind—I reassure myself that writing, like dreaming, is a function of my unconscious and will never leave me entirely on my own. I wake in the very early morning and like to start an hour or two before sunrise as if to catch the tailwind of my dreams. Also, pragmatically, I prefer to start when all the judges are still sleepy, including the harshest one—myself.
A difficult lesson, which I fought at every turn, is that what often must substitute for faith is discipline. Faith has a lovely ease about it, an ethereal ring. Discipline is the rod, the staff, your insecurities internalized and spouting rules and limits on your life. Why can't I just have faith that books will be completed? Why isn't faith alone enough? I hear my Southern roots respond. Faith doesn't dig ditches, they say; faith doesn't scrape the burn from the bottom of the pot. Ultimately, faith gives freedom, and discipline, its sister, makes sure the job gets done. Authors, when alone, often talk of page counts or word counts or how many hours they spent working that day. Rarely do we discuss our own attempts at poetry even though it is the poetry of others that routinely charges us with enough faith to go on.
Waking at 4 a.m.—3 a.m. when I am truly driven—is surely no fun for anyone, but having an image sneak up on you before the rest of the world wakes up is heaven. A small and precious secret that no one can see in the dark. Hours later, when the house stirs, and I hear my husband making a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen, I begin to feel the pressures of the day invade. I feel as if the air around me literally changes, and the work that comes then is harder and driven by will, not grace. I finish up for the day—always in the middle of something with notes jotted down that make no sense to anyone (and if I leave my desk for more than a day, that often includes me)—and go into the world of responsibilities where that necessary if often oppressive goddess of discipline takes center stage.
The work I leave behind in my study is unfinished and unknowable almost every day. Characters come alive and die in an instant, metaphors wobble, and sentences shift meaning without my fully understanding how. After all, conscious thought is the death of creativity and to have faith in one's unconscious is the ultimate need of a writer—at least this one. Dreams go unfinished while we sleep but can be completed upon waking if we both have faith and are willing to do the grueling work of follow-through. In this way faith is a figment, a dream, a creation—something beautiful I never hope to lose.
Alice Sebold is the author of The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon .