The greatest joy for the writer comes with the passage that writes itself; the shimmering fabric that presents itself whole in our heads and asks us to do nothing more than lay it to the page.

Other times, we’re bricklayers.

Sometimes, the big picture refuses to coalesce. The unvoiced question refuses to be answered. We send ourselves dutifully to the chapter and labor at it, building it one brick at a time. It ain’t easy. And a brick wall is, by its nature, no shimmering fabric.

But there’s a grace in bricklaying. There are several.

A brick wall can be disassembled—a lot more easily than a shimmering fabric can be unwoven. We lay one element and make it level. We lay another and test whether they lay true. We can tease the bricks apart. Or pull them down altogether. The wall holds its place nicely for a while…until a better structure presents itself. If we’re lucky, we wind up with a passable, workmanlike thing. That’s tough when we ask, demand, something more of ourselves. And yet, what we have built stands for something—effort if not inspiration.

This has been a hollow weekend, in some ways. A bricklaying session supreme. I started with a wonderful image, set to music real and imagined, only to discover that there was a hole that I hadn’t anticipated; one that I didn’t know how to fill…a character who has moved the story from the beginning, whom I had allowed to disappear. I’ve been laying-in the bricks of this created encounter, waiting for the ahahhhh, for the mental mortar; knowing that there is a beautiful moment hiding in the pile, but not quite finding it yet.

Which brings us to the other grace, the one that comes with the effort itself. A day spent writing—even poorly—or painting, or doing vocal exercises or stretching the body to dance is a day spent well. The practice may not make us amazing limber or reveal an unexpected genius, but at least it is the opposite of atrophy. The wheel, well oiled, may not carry us over our personal mountain passes or win our internalized Indy 500, but we can be pretty sure that it won’t seize up at the least opportune moment. Lay brick, and our brain-muscles will be more toned and ready for fresh demands than if we’d sat on the sidelines of ourselves.

Bricklaying as an exercise in self-forgiveness. Who’da thunk it?

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