My parents, usually led by my dad, a minister, went through long periods of time when the family gathered for a devotion first thing in the morning around the table. One bleary-eyed morning, a reading from Genesis 32 stood out, probably because the events seemed to come out of the dream-like state I was still in, the famous Jacob-wrestling-an-angel passage. Actually, at first the account says he wrestles a man, and only later says it was God. Jacob goes down the river to get some water and next thing you know he’s wrestling with a “man” until daybreak. Then, and this was a part my adolescent mind struggled over, when the man realizes he’s not going to prevail against Jacob he touches Jacob’s hip socket and puts it out of socket. But Jacob still won’t let go until the man gives him a blessing. As William Goyen points out in his incredible essay on the subject, “Recovering,” the subduer actually asks for the blessing of the subdued. The man never tells Jacob his name, but he does give him a blessing and then Jacob goes on to name the place Peniel, which means The Face of God. As in, he’d wrestled with God face to face and received a blessing and a limp.
I think the reason this surreal scene stands out as such strong literature, and is so frequently used as an illustration for all sorts of difficult experiences–not the least of which is as a direct metaphor for writers of literature–is because of its profound, paradoxical metaphor of the “wound-that-heals” motif. My experience in working through a first draft of Simon Krimple’s Wager (what “counts” as my second novel) has been a similar struggle of recovering. While a great deal of the novel is completely “a work of the imagination,” there is also a fair portion that I draw on from my own life, some of which were pretty difficult times. For those writers who write “for themselves,” which I usually take to mean out of their own sense of aesthetic mission or purpose and not out of a direct appeal to market-driven forces, I think this sense of the struggle is especially true.
The word “recover” itself is fantastic for its layers of meaning. In the transitive verb sense it can, among other things, mean (1) to get back; regain; (2) to restore oneself to a normal state; (3) to bring under observation again. In the intransitive verb sense it can mean (1) to regain a normal or usual condition; (2) to receive a favorable judgment. Reginald Gibbons opens a biographical essay on the subject of “recovering” and writing with the illustration of digging up a coffee can he’d buried years before with artifacts from his past inside. The act of writing, especially going back and “borrowing” from our own experiences, is very much like literally unearthing a part of ourselves and re-examining it in a new light.
There are plenty of days when the whole “literary pursuit” feels like a banging up against an impervious wall. What’s the point? Who will read this? Will anyone even make a dime from all this labor? Who am I writing for? How will any of this change anyone? So, the challenge is in the struggle itself; a struggle with the formless material you’re trying to shape into something of lasting value, the material that in some sense is “other” and in another sense is “self.” You have to keep venturing out into the darkness ahead and hoping to find some light. You have to keep believing that somehow you’ll arrive at a better self at the end of the project, even if that’s not the entire point of the struggle. Or is it?