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I sit cross legged in my office chair, trying to find a yoga style position that will ease whatever it is I’ve done to my left lower lumbar region. The cat has her butt firmly planted on my left thigh while enthusiastically kneading my right knee. It seems to make her happy, and my bathrobe is thick enough to shield me from the claws this morning. A perfect cup of french press coffee steams on the desk. All is well.
Should be writing.
That is the mantra running through and through my brain. It starts when David’s alarm clock jerks us both out of the warm drowse of sleep and into a harsh reality of work and parental responsibilities. It mutters at me while I’m loading the French Press and making coffee. Sneers when I sit down here to send out an early morning Twitter message and discover my fingers are not yet capable of typing words recognizable in the English language. Or any language, for that matter, except for that of the sleep deprived.
Should be writing.
Thinking it now while I’m WRITING words here. Thinking it while WRITING morning pages in my journal. And later, I’ll be thinking it while driving kids around, tidying up the house, working with people at my job.
Should. The language of guilt.
Should is not an action verb. It is never motivating. It is a sneaky, manipulative word that leads along a path of regret, self doubt, and perfectionism. And the end thereof is a wasteland of books unwritten, dreams unpursued, moments of life unlived.
The other day, while I was sitting in an airport, bored and waiting for my flight, I opened my laptop and thought about writing. (I should write. I should). But the flight was boarding in half an hour and I really didn’t want to delve into the WIP. So I did something I haven’t done in years – started writing descriptions of the people around me.
During that half hour something happened. I don’t remember the other faces I saw around me that day. But the three directly across from me, and the one sleeping on the floor – I know exactly what they looked like, what they were wearing, what they carried with them. A sense of them lingers with me still. Writing made them real to me.
Should has kept me from that kind of writing. I think it keeps me from writing here as well.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my writing a lot – remembering the joy of it. Writing to tell a story without wondering with every chapter, every character that shows up in my head -“what genre is this? Can I sell it?” And I wonder if it’s possible to forget about all of the shoulds and just be a writer.
Writer: one who writes. One who writes to make sense of the world, to make bits and pieces of it real enough to fit on the page. Maybe, if I’m lucky, to frame a piece of my reality in words or story that will also mean something to people who read. For right now, the day waits. I can’t tell the shape of it yet, although there are a few landmarks I know to expect. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll pause somewhere in the middle of this day – not to write what I think I should – but just to capture a moment, a person, a time, a place – and put it on the page.
Not because I should. Because I choose.
“As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you.” – Elizabeth Gilbert.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am in need of this self forgiveness. If I were Catholic and went to confession, right now I think it might go something like this:
Father forgive me for I have sinned. I have been lazy and self indulgent. I have spent far too many hours on Twitter and blogging and Facebook when I could have been writing. I have cherished words that do not further either plot or characters in my writing, and have been profligate with adverbs. On two days of the last week I neglected my novels altogether, and did not write a word. I have worshipped vainly at the shrines of agents and editors before my manuscript is ready. I have been envious of the success of others and I have entertained the demon of despair.
I’d like to think that perhaps, even without a priest, there is absolution. I am human after all, and there are so many factors that go into this process of writing: emotional, psychological and physical, as well as the unfortunate need to abide by the laws of our physical reality. I’d get a lot more writing done if I could only adjust the space-time continuum at will.
Self immolation is futile: every thought you indulge about failure, every self doubt you entertain, every bit of energy spent on the counter productive process of beating yourself up, is energy taken away from forward motion. This doesn’t for a moment mean that we should ignore our faults and failings. What I have frequently suggested to clients who practice the art of despair is this: stop talking to yourself as though you were the enemy. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love who is struggling. This doesn’t mean sugar coating reality, it just means that you speak with love and a little understanding.
Reframe: I have been brave enough to go back to a novel I thought was finished and begin restructuring the entire thing. I have studied the art of the query and researched agents appropriate to my work. In good faith, I acted on this information and began my collection of rejection letters. I have taken myself seriously as a writer, and registered for my first writing conference – Write on the River, coming up next month. My brain is a creative and busy place, and I have allowed myself to take pleasure in the act of creation rather than worrying excessively about where I will publish it. I have, on occasion, turned up at the page when I was exhausted, distracted, and sick at heart. I continue to believe, against all odds, in the power of story and words and that somewhere in this upside down economy there is still a market for what I write.
How are the rest of you faring with the art of self forgiveness? It’s been awhile since I posted a writing challenge, and today’s is a little bit different. I challenge you to comment positively about the current status of your writing: time spent, temptations overcome, courage shown in the face of your own doubts, a brilliant quote from your own work, some kind of forward movement on the road to publication.
As always, keep your fingers moving, and may your muse be kind.
I know very well that for every day I do not write, there is atrophy: Insights and momentum lost, characters going flat, creative energy evanescing. Meanwhile my personal internal critic performs Incredible Hulk type maneuvers and begins on Guilt, Supersized. “You’ve truly screwed it up now. No point going back. Too much work. You’re not really a writer anyway; if you had any talent at all you’ve frittered it away. Go do something you’re good at.” (Of course, if I listen to this bit of bad advice, in a day or two he’ll be pointing out that I’m not good at anything and can’t even tie my shoes properly.)
And yet, my life as I have chosen to live it, often gets in the way of daily writing. Take my job, for example. I’m a mental health Crisis Response Specialist. This means I’m on call a lot, and I might go to work at 8 am, work a full day, get called out at 6 pm and be out past midnight, then get up and do it all again in the morning. Then there is my family – school starts tomorrow and there are school supplies and schedule adjustments. There is always and forever laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning and meals. We spent the last three days painting. I mean, really, all day every day for three days. I’m not talking putting paint on canvas here. I’m talking about painting high sloping ceilings, a form of refined and exquisite torture that should be reserved for the punishment of vicious criminals. And yes, I could have done a little writing in the evenings, if I could have kept my eyes open. I am weak. I slept.
Now, in defiance of the guilt monster critic, I need to get back to writing. All the resistance in the world rises up in revolt, and the excuses come hard and fast. I’m cold, I’m tired, anything I write tonight will be garbage, what’s the point, maybe I should just go to bed and try again tomorrow. Only, as I’ve just pointed out, for every day of writing lost, there is a penalty to be paid.
I’m reminded of a scene from the third Matrix movie, where Neo is fighting an apparently hopeless battle. Agent Smith asks, “why, Mr. Anderson, why do you persist?” And Neo, beaten and bloody, responds, “because I choose to.” And sometimes that’s what the writing comes down to. There are the good days, the fun days, the exciting rewarding days. And the days that I do it simply because I choose.
Guess it’s one of them days and I’d better get back at it.