Photo: © 2008 Jupiterimages Corporation
A photography business, a newspaper column, a published memoir: Kelly Corrigan thought life was about dabbling in many things—until her daughter showed her the satisfaction of perfecting just one."This is it!" I'd call to my husband, Edward. "Get the video camera!" Georgia was a year old. "Come on, baby! Take a step." She'd been torturing me for weeks, slowly lifting herself up and then freezing—studying the terrain, considering the consequences. I was the queen of diving in, of "Hey, why not?," and I guess I'd assumed that my daughter would be the same. "You can do it!" I'd cry. "One little baby step!" But it would be another six weeks before Georgia summoned the nerve to lift one foot off the ground and set it down in front of the other. Naturally it happened when I wasn't looking, perhaps even because I wasn't looking.
Right around this time, I found an old Pentax in our storage space and started taking pictures. A few weeks later, I told Edward I was thinking of quitting my job designing educational software. "I want to be a photographer," I announced, handing him a set of black-and-whites. "Candid portraits." He responded with his signature squint, a look of derision, skepticism, and superiority all rolled into one. (Edward is a person who dares not begin anything that might not end with excellence, whereas I've been known to swing by the art supply store on the way home from the museum because "how hard can it be?")
I landed one photography client, then another. A nice man at the camera shop walked me through my contact sheets, showing me which frames to print. After my first big assignment, I ran back to the lab waving my check. "She couldn't believe this was my first job!" I reported. "I can't, either," said the nice man, beaming. That was all the confirmation I needed to say goodbye to educational software.
A year or two later, though, expectations had reset. Clients started asking if I did my own printing, if I would bring lights, if I could shoot in medium format. Nope, not me. If there are 10 steps to mastering photography, medium format is probably around Step 8. It's advanced. You are no longer taking big, easy strides, but rather inching ahead so slowly you wonder if you've moved forward at all. Too much work for too little gain, I thought.
By this time, Georgia was in preschool, distinguishing herself as the girl who drew flowers. Not hearts, or stick people, or big firecracker suns—just flowers. And really just one flower: a daisy-ish blossom that she honed and refined over the course of a year, like Monet and his water lilies. "Want me to show you how to draw a house?" I would ask. "I'm not finished with my flower," she'd answer. Really? It looked good enough to me. If I were Georgia, I'd have moved on months ago. I like the huge payoff of the steep learning curve. One day you're stumbling around and the next, you're doing it (skiing down the bunny slope, playing chopsticks on the piano, drawing a tree). I like impressing people ("Wow, you've never done this before?"). And I love always having a fresh answer to my favorite question, "What's new?"
Clearly, Georgia felt differently. And since I had some strong opinions on the matter—and was unwilling to devote myself to the finer points of photography—I put down my camera and picked up a pen. I had read enough poorly written newspaper columns to believe that I could beat the average. I whipped up a sample essay (about teaching kids to approach new things with optimism); one month later, my name and photo were on the front page of The Piedmonter, my California town's weekly paper. Just like that, I was a "columnist": $50 per column, two columns a month. People at cocktail parties seemed impressed. Edward stopped squinting. When I walked Georgia to school, she ran from driveway to driveway looking for my face on the morning's paper.
In second grade, having finally taken her flower as far as she could, Georgia dedicated herself to the cartwheel. Weeks became months. "You've got it!" I'd tell her. "Not yet," she'd reply. She wanted to start and end on an imaginary balance beam, like her friend Amelia did. I'd say, "Try a headstand." But she wasn't looking for a quick win. She was working on something small and specific, something well beyond basic proficiency. "No," she'd say, tossing her legs over her body again.
Meanwhile, after a year of writing my newspaper column, it was getting harder and harder to produce 800 original and meaningful words about family life. That's when I came up with my coolest party trick yet. I decided to write a book—a memoir about growing up; I called it The Middle Place. Each week I'd bang out a new chapter, which I'd oblige Edward to read the minute he walked in the door on Friday nights. Eventually, my story had a beginning, middle, and end. My sister-in-law found me an agent, the agent found me an editor, the book was published. True, in every chapter, there's a phrase or a paragraph or a whole page that I wish I'd worked harder on. But to everyone's astonishment, for one splendid week, the book was tied for 15th place on the New York Times best-seller list. (Special thanks to Aunt Peggy, who bought 15 copies that week instead of 10.) It did okay with reviewers too. All in all, pretty good for my first time.
It's been a year since The Middle Place came out, and naturally my agent wants to know how the second book is coming. "I'm thinking about it," I say, as I flip through my rough outline for Hello, World (so much easier to name a book than write one). I look at the document almost every day—sometimes touching up sentences, more often just tweaking the formatting. I want to write it, I do. The subject matter—deciding what faith to teach our children—feels important and provocative and worthwhile. But when I get inside a chapter, I can't get any momentum going.
So rather than suffer through the hopeless periods that every decent writer has, rather than delete and rewrite, outline and restructure, rather than advance by those tiny increments my daughter seems to relish, I've started something new: Saving Fairyland, an original screenplay! Step 1: Buy special software. Check. Step 2: Bang out a draft. Voilà! Step 3: Drag my friend Betsy into the project. Done. Right this minute, we have 89 index cards on my dining room table, one for each scene; by the time you read this, the fifth draft will be complete. That's right, finished! If this were Hello, World, I'd still be suffering through the first chapter. "You're too much!" my friends say. "What next—an opera?"
Of course, as I'm busy reinventing myself, Georgia is still working on her cartwheel. The same damn thing, over and over again. Except, as Edward points out, her cartwheel has actually changed—a lot. She can do it anywhere now: on a grassy hill, in a crowded living room, on a painted line on concrete. Where it was once mostly momentum, it's now controlled and exact. What appeared to be fruitless repetition has turned out to be...mastery.
"That's some cartwheel, honey," I say. And I mean it.
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.