The Paris Review

On Effort and Letting Go

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Every writer has a carburetor, unique to herself, that measures out a mist of fuel for the volume of flowing air in the cylinder of her imagination. A plug provides the spark, the fuel ignites, and off she goes.

The spark is an idea; the fuel is effort; the air is grace. She needs them all, and all in balance. If the cylinder contains too much fuel, it won’t ignite. She sits in an old car on a winter morning and twists the key while she pumps the pedal: the engine makes a cranking wheeze, not the whoosh of ignition. She pumps the pedal again, adding still more fuel, to no avail. She has flooded the cylinder. She has tried too hard.

For three years, I sat at my desk, about six mornings a week, and nothing happened. A strenuous nothing. With great force, I looked at the wall. Or I wrote a few paragraphs, revised, typed, extended, retyped, over a number of months, then threw it all away. Advice from Kafka hung from a thumbtack in the bulletin board over my desk: Wait.

Vehemently, I waited.

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