When It’s Ready
December 20, 2015
Several years ago, when I was searching for the ghosts of my ancestors throughout the south of Italy, my husband and I were staying at in elegant hotel in Ravello, overlooking the sea, a few villages south of Positano, the now posh but then poverty stricken place where my maternal grandmother had lived. My husband was sick, confined to bed. I was spending leisurely days on a balcony overlooking the water, reading, knitting, dozing. It wasn’t the sightseeing-packed holiday I’d planned, but it turned out—at least for me—to be even more enjoyable.
One twilight evening I was still outdoors deciding whether to rouse my husband for supper or to let him sleep. And from the street below I heard what seemed to be the music of a marching band. I could hear a trumpet, a trombone, the beat of a drum, a tambourine. Knowing that Italians celebrate saints’ holidays, and knowing that there are many saints’ days in Italy to celebrate, I scurried down to the front desk to ask what was going on.
The proprietor of the hotel was there, a gracious, graying, beautifully dressed man, and, in answer to my question, he shrugged his shoulders in the way that Italians have to indicate they have no idea what you’re talking about, and furthermore, they don’t care.
“But can you look outside and tell me?” I asked.
The two of us descended a few more flights of stairs. By now the band—for that was what I’d heard—was further down the street, about to make the turn that would take them to another road that made its way into the heart of the village.
“It’s only the local band,” he said.
“But what are they celebrating?” I persisted.
“Nothing,” he replied. “They get together and practice. And then when they know they’re ready, they march.”
“But why aren’t there any flyers?” I asked for I would have loved to watch them as they passed.
“Because they never know until the last minute when they’ll be ready and so they never know until the last minute when they’ll be marching.”
End of encounter.
This very Italian moment has stayed with me, and I return to it each time I want to hurry my work along, each time I agree to a deadline, each time I insist that my students hand their work in on time. For I know that there is a difference between creative time and clock time—time cut up into minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. For I do believe that creative people work best if they themselves let the process of doing their work tell them when their work is ready rather than having an external deadline imposed upon them.
How can I know beforehand when a work of mine will be ready? How can I agree to make it ready in a year, or two? How can I, in good conscience, ask my students to have their work ready by a particular date on the calendar? For what if my work—or theirs—isn’t ready by then? What if it needs a few more days, or weeks, or months?
As I’ve aged—I’m now seventy-three, and feeling the press of time—I’ve paradoxically let myself slow down in my writing work; I’ve started acting like the members if that band—I’ll decide when my work is ready, and only then will I go public with it. I’ve started telling myself that I have all the time in the world (whereas in fact I don’t) and that the book I’m currently writing will be ready when it’s ready. And my creative time now, though it’s limited by illness, feels expansive rather than restricted; calm rather than anxious; free rather than constrained.
During the last few semesters I taught, if a student thought her/his work needed another week, another month or two or more, I said fine, remembering that band in Ravello that marched only when they themselves knew they were ready. I am thinking of one particular student. By the end of the semester his 20-page memoir was fine—through several revisions he’d made great progress. He handed his work in on time. But then he emailed me.
“It’s not ready,” he said. And then I committed a cardinal sin of teaching by responding, “I’m satisfied; let me decide.” As soon as I answered, I knew that was bad pedagogy, so I responded again, “Forget my last email. Take the time you need and we’ll figure out what to do about the grade.”
A few weeks later, he sent me another draft of his work. This time he’d examined aspects of his upbringing that he’d never touched on before. His first version was inauthentic because I’d forced him to “perform” before he knew he was ready.
The second version had everything a teacher could want in a work: soul, depth, authenticity, and beauty.
They practice, and then when they know they’re ready, the march.