Coming Home: How to Return to Writing, after Way Too Long
“I don’t want to tell other people’s stories anymore.” I say this to my love, Sarah, as I am lying sloth-like on the hammock in our backyard. “I keep hearing a voice in my head saying, ‘Think your own thoughts; write your own words.’”
For the past couple days, I have watched it happening: my mind keeps traveling the tributaries of other people’s rivers, wondering what it’s like to be them. This may sound like empathy — an altruistic caring for others. I am an inherently empathic person, and that’s a quality I value in myself and others.
However, this isn’t empathy. It’s distraction. Instead of connecting with what I am thinking or feeling in any given moment, I’m bumming rides in other people’s thought cars — friends, strangers, famous people, politicians, former students, my own kids — and they’ve taken me ever farther from home.
How did this happen?
Sarah and I trace back through the past month, identifying major points on our family calendar:
We have spent the past four weekends painting our house, rearranging furniture, purging and purchasing, preparing for Sarah to move in with the kids and me. (She moved in! Yay!)
Meanwhile, the kids’ last two weeks of school were filled with baseball games, theater performances, a field trip I chaperoned, homework, special projects, and — for our youngest — a few sick days that consumed my schedule.
In the middle of all that, I received the shocking news that a dear friend died suddenly, a loss that will reverberate in me for a long, long time.
Oh yeah, and the kids have been out of school for two weeks now (goodbye, work routine; goodbye, uninterrupted writing time; hello, constant scheduling of activities and shuffling of children while trying to meet my work deadlines), and I took on three new major editing projects, and I fell ill for a week.
There’s more. There’s always more. Life’s full and constantly in motion. Usually I love life’s rich variety of experiences. Until I come unmoored from the practices that ground me: writing, yoga, hiking.
But it doesn’t matter how this happened.
Even as Sarah and I take life inventory, we both acknowledge this: It’s interesting to review the recent past to see how I arrived here, but the search for a “cause” for my distance from my writing practice and myself actually does nothing to return me to that practice or to myself. The search simply keeps my mind busy analyzing data, when really what I need to do is quiet my mind by beginning to experience my body.
Instead of asking How did this happen? I need instead to acknowledge this is happening. Instead of obsessing over what should be happening, I need to begin experiencing what is happening right now.
In How to Sit, Thich Nhat Hanh says
In our daily lives we may get lost in our thinking, in our worries, and in our various projects. To sit is to restore ourselves, to become fully present and fully alive in the here and now. Following your breath, calming your body and mind, you can become present easily and quickly. It takes five or ten seconds for us to restore ourselves fully and produce our true presence in the here and now.
Breathing, noticing the quality of our breath, noticing the funhouse distractions that pop up in our minds when we’re trying to experience our breath, noticing the physical sensations in our bodies while we breathe, noticing things as they are instead of comparing them to how we think they should be — all of these practices bring us back to ourselves, in this moment, which is the place from which writing begins.
Forget how you got here. Just be here.
Yesterday, after three weeks off, I returned to yoga. I felt stiff, creaky, and full of thoughts about how much stronger and more flexible I used to be when I was staunchly committed to attending two yoga classes a week. As I moved through the practice, I could have stayed in that thought loop, judging, wishing, criticizing. But experience has taught me that comparing today’s self to a past self takes me nowhere I want to be. The wisdom and relief I need comes only from sinking into the body I have, as it is, in the moment I have it.
When I start with that goal: meeting myself where I am, without judgement, I enjoy the burning sensation of a muscle waking into its strength; I notice my lungs’ expansion growing throughout the class; I notice the changes brought about through the unification of motion and breath. In other words: I reap the full benefit of the practice.
The same could be said for writing. When I finally return to my writing practice, I can burn up all my energy judging myself, or I can simply acknowledge the inner chatter — the excuses, the tensions, the insecurities, the criticisms — and start writing.
Intellectualizing and self-criticism — these thought loops keep us from returning home to ourselves and the real writing we want to do.
How do we bypass the thought loops? Let these patterns be fauna in your inner world, just like animals in the wild. Move like a hiker passing through: you can acknowledge the presence of these unhelpful thought patterns, but you don’t need to follow them. Nod at them and move on, listening all the while for the sound of your own true voice.
The way back to writing is . . . writing.
It’s that simple. Give up the analytics, give up the self-criticism, and write.
Once you get that pen moving (or keyboard clicking), whether you write for five minutes or five hours, whether you write something you feel proud of or something you want to hide, in the end, you have written.