In which Small Dog and I refrain from attacking the vacuum cleaner

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

~John Milton

Wrapping up the third week of Quest 2016, Chris Brogan asks:

How will you better clarify whom you serve and what you do for them in 2016?

All right, Chris Brogan. I’ve been avoiding your question since it zipped through the interwebs to my inbox yesterday morning. I don’t want to answer it, but now I’m stuck in a small room with a small dog who makes poor life decisions. My husband is vacuuming, and one of the poor life decisions this small dog chronically makes is to launch rabid attacks on the vacuum the second it turns on. Her life choices are so poor, in fact, that if she is alone in a room, she will try to attack the vacuum through the door. So small dog and I are sitting here in this room. She is pondering how she can eat her way through the door so she can slay that vacuum cleaner, and I am pondering how I can not answer this question.

Small Dog contemplates the integrity of the door.

What keeps darting through my mind is the last line of Milton’s sonnet. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

I don’t know whom I serve right now. Stories, I guess. I’ve written five novels, but I’m still on the quest for publication and so, aside from a handful of very lovely and patient humans, nobody reads them. Questions like Chris Brogan’s make me crotchety. I know whom I want to serve, but because of where I’m at in this process right now, I don’t feel I’m actually serving anybody.

“Serve” feels like a fraught word from the perspective of a woman and mother, and maybe that’s why I resist it. My tribe’s been serving everybody else since the beginning of history and frankly, I get sick of it sometimes. Is it easier to talk about service when you’re male, when service isn’t necessarily what’s expected of you by default? Jesus could wash people’s feet and it was a huge deal. If God had had a daughter instead of a son, would this service have surprised anyone? What if the Buddha had been female–would she have had time, while serving her family, to have gotten enlightened in the first place? Sometimes I think of all the music that didn’t get composed, the stories that didn’t get written, the art that didn’t get made because the particular genius who alone could have done it had two X chromosomes and was therefore expected to serve others first–and the thought of this loss makes me feel crushed and empty like a discarded soda can.

But it’s not just that. It’s that I know I’m not really serving anyone yet in the way I want to be–as a novelist. The submission process is a long one. Sometimes it seems interminable. I know it isn’t. But I’m impatient, and I have to work every single day to keep myself from falling into the pit of despair, which is the worst possible place for a writer to be and yet one of the easiest to end up in.

This is the face of despair. “WHY can I not eat the vacuum?!?”

I’m trying to come up with some important answer to this question, but I can’t. Not yet. Maybe I’m not at a point where I can even think about this one. My resistance tells me that this may be one I need to sit with for a while. Maybe it’s one I need to tuck away for now and bring out later, when I’m in a position to answer it.

I could keep going–about the readers I want to write for, about why I write, about what all of this means to me and why I have to do it this way–but right now, that feels about as productive as attacking the vacuum cleaner.

14 thoughts on “In which Small Dog and I refrain from attacking the vacuum cleaner

    1. Thanks, Lauren! I really grappled with this one, and I’m not even sure I said what I meant–so thank you very much. I’m glad I said something comprehensible! 🙂

  1. “If God had had a daughter instead of a son, would this service have surprised anyone? What if the Buddha had been female–would she have had time, while serving her family, to have gotten enlightened in the first place?”

    — breathless —

    Loving you, Brenna, and your crankiness. Don’t serve. Pick a different verb.

    1. Thanks so much, AK. You’re right–I need a new verb! Indebted to you for this. Words are so important–the wrong one can just muck anything up for me. Thanks for this suggestion. Now off to happily locate a word! 😀

      1. Oh how I love the honest s…y..! Serve? Yeah. It comes with all the assumptions you list. Apropos the masterpieces that never got expressed by the XX’s you might enjoy Alma Deutscher’s refusal to be ‘Little Miss Mozart’. I wrote a post on her awhile back. If interested here: Re serve though, is this not a question that points to the necessity of serving oneself? Is your reply not essentially that? I was afraid this quest would land me amongst a ‘tribe’ of worthies and I would be found much wanting and getting as cranky, itching and restless for want of virtues I couldn’t honestly profess. Like your dog who knows a vacuum cleaner when he sees one. Refusing to answer is answer enough! We must all resist conformity, otherwise this is no quest at all.

  2. To learn patience is a hard a hard thing! It’s so much easier to do or to ‘search’ or excessively ponder- instead of trusting in the process (whatever that process is). Have a good Christmas Brenna. Nicky 🙂

  3. I think a writer, first and foremost, serves the story–the ones that need to be told, the ones that let imaginations grow, and all that other stuff that regular ‘serving’ can’t do. Writers serve by opening portals to ideas, inventions, advances in everything sphere of human existence (even the dark ones) and, in doing so, serve the world now and in the future. That’s what your post told me. Ask your dog, he knows too. It’s probably why he’s letting you write when he’d rather you be doing other things 🙂

    1. Excellent point! I think you’re right–it really is all about serving the story, and the story can in turn go out and serve others and do its work in the world. Thanks for that very thoughtful response.

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