on writing, on what it’s like.
Sometimes, when I sit down to write, the times when I am not so overcome with the impulse to write that I type furiously on my phone or, speak a hundred miles an hour into a voice memo, the times that aren’t like that, I try to be very intentional, very purposed. I carve out time, I work with my husband to find the moments, to make sure our children have what they need, to make sure that our family’s wellbeing will bear the weight of my absence for a while (which it always does). It’s funny what happens next, what happens when I light the candle and cozy in to the chair in the front room, the one with the bay window, the one looking toward the house across the street where the neighbors are putting up their Christmas lights. I open my computer or journal, or I read a few chapters of a book, Jeannette Walls or Ann Lamott, for example, just to get myself in that writing mood, that elusive, wondrous, part truth part fiction state of mind, and I try to get started.
And then I check Facebook.
And my email.
Also Twitter and Instagram, just in case of world news or someone having a baby or something.
Oh and those bills I’m sure I paid but maybe just perhaps I’ve deceived myself and we’re actually months behind, late fees heaping, and if I don’t pay them RIGHT NOW our lights will be turned off and my kids will freeze in this winter cold.
Except that we live in Texas. And my bills are on auto-pay. But other than that, it’s a totally rational concern.
Once those concerns are assuaged, I turn my focus inward for a moment. How am I doing? How do I feel about this? Do I want to write right now? Will I even be able to produce anything worthwhile? It’s 5pm. I bet if I’d sat down at 3pm, even 4pm, I tell myself, I would feel like writing. But I waited too long, the moment has passed, all is lost. It’s too late for coffee, I need to feed the kids soon, the Rubbermaid tubs of holiday décor are still sitting in the foyer, open, half emptied, waiting for a sudden urge to complete the project to wash over me. I feel grumpy, annoyed with myself and/or anything else animate or inanimate within my sightline, earshot, or mind’s reach. I am peeved, silly, untalented.
Dramatic as well, apparently.
Well, I could just start writing, I tell myself. But what would even come out? Surely nothing. What’s the merit of “just writing?” Will this ever even be seen by anyone. I HOPE NOT because it’s going to be awful. But, no, wait I HOPE SO because if no one ever sees it then WHAT WAS EVEN THE POINT?! If a tree falls in the forest and all that. Sigh. Writing, you untamable beast.
But I try it anyway. I try it because there’s too much evidence on the side of the courtroom marked “In Defense of Writing.” I smile because most of the evidence in that bursting file is page after page after page of entries, of records of the times I have sat down in frustration or confusion or feeling just a bit “off” or knowing I had something to say but absolutely no idea what it was and as soon as my pen touched the page or fingers touched the keyboard…out it came. Words. Words that must have been in there all this while but I’ve just now taken the time to acknowledge them.
“Writing is the art of a listening heart, “ Julia Cameron tells me in The Right to Write.
I read this during one of those few moments of reading before I attempt to create, before I step out onto the precipice of discovering if I actually have anything to say at all, a precipice no less frightening the thousandth time I approach it than it was the first. I wonder if this is how mountain climbers feel, or skydivers or downhill skiers, like there’s a burning flame inside them, burning hot and wild, refusing to be put out, threatening to consume the body it dwells in if the soul that resides there won’t just step up to the precipice, take the first step up the mountain, the leap out of the plane, the glide down the white snow.
The fingers to the keyboard.
It’s funny how memory works in all of this, how I have every reason to believe that when I sit down to write, something will come out that I am glad I said, even if it’s not for public consumption, even if I’m not quite sure what it means. Just the act of saying something, of knowing that my mind holds thoughts I’m not even aware of until I give them the honor of being heard, is a comfort. Writing, the art of a listening heart. Yet I still get nervous each time, still wonder if there’s anything left in there, or was there ever anything in there at all? Sometimes I even go back and start reading old pieces I’ve written, baiting myself, looking for a typo or incomplete thought or botched metaphor so that I can tell myself I’m not really a writer and I should just go do something else, something more contained, more measurable, more certain and predictable. I try to let myself off the hook, convince myself there’s a better way to spend my time, or at least a way that’s less emotional, less risky, less unknown. But it doesn’t work. The flame just burns hotter, provoked, spreading.
The fingers to the keyboard.
When I write, though thoughts may have been brewing for a while, I still don’t really know what I am going to say before I say it. Ever. I may have a few bullet points that I assume will be included, but I never, never, never write from an outline. In high school, when I had to turn one in, I would write the paper then go back and write the outline. It’s just my way. I love language too much to fragment it like that. I can’t start there. I have to start in the mess and work my way up out of the mud. If everything starts too neat, too tidy and structured then I may miss that brilliant dash of color just outside the lines, that splash of paint unplanned but profound. This is not a better or worse situation, good or bad or any of that. Plenty of writers begin with meticulously plotted points, certain of their beginning, middle and end. I respect them greatly, but I just can’t do it. I’ve tried it, and I’d rather, well, climb a mountain or jump out of a plane. My precipice requires fog, requires me to buckle down, listen close, turn on the headlights and drive, trusting that the light will guide, that there’s something to find here, something to see. Keep going, I hear from somewhere out there (or is it somewhere inside me?), you can’t miss it.
Writing, the art of a listening heart.
So there’s mud and fog, mess and uncertainty, like weeds crowded around, in and through this path toward the precipice that beckons me. And I’m marching ahead with my flashlight and boots, a little unsure why I’m even here at all, it was warmer inside, of course, safer. But deep down I know that I’m here because I have to be, because I’m called to this place like a sailor to the seas and to deny myself the risk would be to forego the indescribable waiting pleasure. The true belief, the true awareness, the true value of this gift, this confusing, nagging, life-giving gift of writing, is only found in that step off of the cliff, that rush toward the ground. It is only found in that first step into the dark fog, the seeping mud, the first step that says, “I choose the unknown and the mess.” What is found on the other side may not be control, it may not be the clean lines I crave or the certainty I’m hoping to find, but it’s something glorious all the same, even more, really. It’s the answers to questions I didn’t know I had, the lyrics to the melody I’ve been humming on the journey. It’s the glimpse at the new precipice, the one for next time, exhilarating and daunting all the same.
Fingers to the keyboard.
Writing, the art of the listening heart.
I tighten my boots and keep walking, toes over the edge. And this time, while the fall may be just as frightening as it has ever been, it feels ever so slightly like home.