For this interview, my employers told me the subject would come to me at home. Great, I thought. My house is a disaster. I spent the morning cleaning. I wiped the floor behind the toilet, I used some vinegar on the glass of the front door, I used the extension on the vacuum to suck all the cobwebs out of the corner, causing the little cellar spiders to curse my faithlessness and dash off elsewhere. I put some bread in the machine, mostly for the good smell, and I sat down to wait.
Now, with my tea on the kitchen table in front of me, I study the card. The Six of Cups: two children playing in a lovely bower, a fountain in the foreground, flowers everywhere. An older man, serious, watches them from the door. If my back yard looked like that, instead of bare patches of dirt and a rusted swing set, I’d want to play all day, but we can’t afford it right now. That’s why I’m doing these interviews: to get paid, so I can create beauty at home.
So I work. I make a list of all of the details I see in the card: hummingbird, sunlight, butterfly.
“That looks like our yard.”
I was so deep in concentration that I didn’t hear my daughter enter the kitchen. A familiar riff of parental guilt plays in my mind; I’ve given her exactly zero attention this morning. “It looks like our yard? Really?”
“Yes. Let me show you.” She takes my hand.
The problem is that the subjects for the interview should be here any minute. “Tell you what. I’ll come out and see it as soon as my interview is done. We’ll have all afternoon then. Go on, make sure it stays like that, and I’ll come out as soon as I can.”
I’m looking at my list, going over it, trying to pay attention to the words on my list and picture on the card instead of the sound of my daughter’s voice echoing in my head. How does she see this in our yard? Maybe I would know, if I paid some attention to her. I leave my tea on the table, and leave the back door open so I can hear the doorbell.
“Hey.” I find her sitting in the dirt, out in the sunlight. “How does our yard look like that?”
She dances in a circle around the well. “Here!” Her hand brushes the rough stone-pocked concrete. A tiered fountain appears, with the melodic percussion of falling water. “Here!” She waves her hands at the chain link fence, a vestige of the house’s previous owners. The morning glory vines that I can’t seem to ever get rid of unfurl and climb up and through the interstices, filling them with flowers of every hue. She waves her hand at the swing set. It becomes a bower, with benches for us to sit and play, shaded gently by wisteria, framing a window that seems to open to a magical world beyond instead of the alley behind my house.
My yard has transformed. No matter how much I wipe my eyes and refocus, the gorgeous garden from the Six of Cups is here. The air itself is a sweet elixir in my lungs.
I kneel beside my daughter. “How did you do this?”
“It’s easy, Mommy,” she says. “I just play.”
I finally get it: she is my subject, the one I am to interview. She is the child in the Six of Cups. I am the stern adult, watching from the doorway.
Natalie Babbitt, in the reader’s guide at the end of my copy of Tuck Everlasting, said: Writing doesn’t matter. Those words have haunted me ever since I read them. There are several ways to read that, and I’m not sure what her intention was; she could have meant that it does not dig wells or heal the sick, which is true. Writing won’t physically clean the environment or stop bullets. Yet someone’s written word can inspire a reader to spend their life digging wells, or comfort a loved one on their deathbed; it can convince an oil company to transition toward greener energy, and give a soldier hope and understanding. In this way, writing does change the world. That’s why I choose to believe that Writing doesn’t matter, instead of being dismissive of the product, encourages the paradoxical approach artists must take to the act of creation.
If we think, My writing is important; I have to be an adult, to be serious, to get it done, then the Muse leaves us as quickly as a butterfly we’ve chased. But if we let go and play, the beauty arrives, surprises us, creates magical worlds out of bare dirt and rust. Art is play, and in our need for approval, for perfection, for income, we writers often forget how to play. Need stifles art, as much as the presence of your overbearing adult figure stifles play. Give that inner adult something else to do. Give him something else to pin his all-important self-esteem on. It has to not matter. You have to not need it. Open your document and start typing, or grab your notebook and pen, and start imagining, sailing away from all self-criticism like a stolen cutter with the furious gendarmes waving helplessly ashore.
Let the words play and get it all entirely wrong. They know what they’re doing.