The sentence comes far into a sprawling novel by Karl Marlantes. If you’re not familiar with him, Marlantes gained attention with “Matterhorn,” his equally sprawling debut novel based on his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War, finally written and published 35 years after that war. (Some consider it the definitive book on Vietnam. I sunk into it, but still put Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” at the top of the list, with Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” a close second.)
I came to Marlantes’ work through a slimmer volume: his philosophical memoir — or perhaps it was a memoiristic essay — titled “What It Is Like to Go to War.” It weaves moments of his experience as a young soldier with his post-war struggles and the spiritual journey that led to his core conclusion: As well as we prepare combatants for the physical and logistical realities of war, we also must prepare them for the moral crises they will confront. It is beautifully written despite the challenging subject, and his thoughtfulness returns to me years after reading.
Which brings us back to the missing-piece sentence above.
I picked up (OK, ordered through Amazon) “Deep River” for three reasons:
- I was intrigued by Marlantes’ previous work.
- I read a positive review from someone I respect.
- And it was about subject matters that interest me: The migration of poor Europeans to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and specifically to the Pacific Northwest where I now live; the aggressive development of the logging and fishing industries at the time, along with consequent environmental implications; and the chaotic, often violent birth of the labor movement.
Woven into that story are, of course, other stories. One involves a Finnish immigrant of inviolable Christian faith who builds a church in the wilderness, only to see reality around him defy everything he thought to be true. Through the kind of circumstances that tend to only happen in novels, he is befriended by an elderly native woman from one of the coastal tribes. She is a shaman and basket-weaver. She teaches the believer to see spirituality in ways more connected to nature and humanity than to organized religion, and takes on his daughter as an apprentice basket-weaver.
One day the girl, who is 9 at the time, throws down a basket in frustration because she can’t master the pattern. Her work is flawed. She wants to quit because it, and she, are not good enough.
That’s when her teacher offers perhaps the greatest lesson of all, which she calls the three measures of a basket that is “good enough:”
“The first is that your basket does the job it was made for.”
“The second is that your basket will hold water for a year.”
“The third is when you can make a basket without worrying whether it is good enough.”
When I came across this passage, I dog-eared the page. (Yes, I do that, without apology.) I have returned to it several times since, thinking about how it applies to so much in life, but especially to what we do as journalists. Consider your written piece as a woven basket:
Doing the job it was made for: Our stories need to serve a purpose and a primary audience. Are they explanatory, meant to educate readers about some complex aspect of civic life? Are they investigative pieces that expose wrongdoing? Are they narratives that let peoples into another culture or experience?
Hold water for a year: This one is tough in journalism, because the news comes so fast and can feel so fleeting. So one test is whether, when you write your story, you think it will hold up, even just as a glimpse into the time and place you are writing from, if someone reads it a year from now. Or 50 years from now.
Accepting that it is good enough. To this, the shaman basket-weaver added a crucial note:
“The third one is the hardest.”
So that missing part of the sentence? “Good enough.” As in: The third “good enough” is when when you can make basket (or write a story) without worrying whether it is good enough.
Our writing will seldom, if ever, be perfect. We work with the materials at hand. We write against deadline. We want more resources, more time, more talent.
Truth is, sometimes we fall far short of useful. Our stories don’t hold or serve or endure. But other times we create durable craft that is its own form of art. Most of the time — if our work is useful and sound — it is good enough.
And that is good enough.