For 15 years Edward and I have been going to a San Francisco lecture series that features writers talking about their life's work. One night we listened as the novelist Charles Frazier described how writing Cold Mountain took him six or seven years, two or three of which he spent in the Blue Ridge Mountains, cataloging Appalachian plants, tracking down headstones on forgotten hillsides, reading the letters and journals of 19th-century farmers. On the way home from the lecture that night, Edward and I agreed that Frazier's gift was not only genius but will. And persistence. And discipline. And hard, hard work. The work, by the way, seems not to have gotten any easier the next time around: Nearly 10 years passed before Frazier's second novel, Thirteen Moons, came out. I liked it even more than Cold Mountain.
Writers like Charles Frazier are moving slowly, even imperceptibly, toward some hard-to-come-by, maybe even impossible, goal that they refuse to forsake. They haven't been on the steep part of the learning curve in years. They're not susceptible to the look at me! lure of having something new to announce. They wouldn't abandon their craft any sooner than they would their children. How rich their satisfaction must be.
After about a thousand cartwheels, Georgia knows something of that satisfaction. And watching her, I finally see that although I've always prided myself on fearlessly jumping into one new project after another, I'm the one who's been doing the same thing over and over: finding a way to be a beginner. I keep starting at zero and making it to six or seven but never going any further, never knowing the gratification of levels eight, nine, and 10, never reaching the place where the cartwheel becomes elegant.
When I think about writing another book ("It couldn't possibly go as well; I've told all the best stories already"), what worries me is that I may have already done my personal best—and that whatever worked about The Middle Place was nothing more than beginner's luck. For the first time, I'm wondering if all the commotion that goes with continually—and "fearlessly"—reinventing myself might just be an elaborate smoke screen, a way to distract myself from my greatest fear: failure. The truth is, I'd like to sit down for however many years it takes and write one clear and beautiful thing, one book worthy of a world that already has too many books in it. The other truth is, I'm just not sure I can.
Georgia is too young to have found her life's work, but when I watch her study the terrain and consider the consequences, it's clear that if she felt as though she had something big to say, she'd write a second book. She'd slip off quietly, and while no one was looking, she'd summon the nerve to lift one foot off the ground and set it down in front of the other.
So here I go, opening the Hello, World file again. One sentence at a time. If I can get myself through this, it will be the most truly daring thing I've ever done. And while I think and stare and occasionally type, Georgia sits at the kitchen table, directing her considerable focus to writing in cursive. The stylish capital G. The Laverne and Shirley L. Over and over again, she writes her name, Georgia Corrigan Lichty, until it perfectly reflects the indomitable, inspiring girl she is.
Kelly Corrigan is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Middle Place (Voice), now available in paperback. She is online at KellyCorrigan.com.