Consider this as a hypothetical situation: For the past three months, you’ve been holed up inside your house, trying to be on your best behavior while secretly nursing a seriously bad attitude and getting blindsided by tsunamis of anxiety. Maybe you were OK at first, and maybe around the second week or so you looked up and realized that every fantasy you’ve ever had about having enough time to write was actually coming true. But maybe, just maybe, instead of sitting down every morning with a cup of coffee and a quiet mind, you are now, instead, either (A) a Words with Friends ninja, (B) carrying around 15 new pounds of self-loathing, (C) thinking that you’d rather peel your own fingernails off, one by one, than return to your writing, or (D) all of the above.
Congratulations! You’re on your way.
Every single time we make a new level of commitment to our writing, we run head on into our own hidden caches of misinformation around writers and the writing process, most of which we build up unwittingly as participants in a culture that knows diddlysquat about creativity, artistry, and authentic expression. And the longer you’ve waited to make the kind of commitment to writing you’ve been craving, the harder this collision will be – sort of like how thunder comes in after days upon days of unshifting heat. This isn’t because you aren’t talented, disciplined, or driven enough, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces every time I hear this from a writer. It’s because finding your way to an actual writing practice probably looks a lot different than almost every single impression you’ve been given of the writing life. It’s highly unlikely, in other words, that you’re going to find yourself able to sit down at the same time every day for a set number of hours and turn out a set number of words before you break for lunch. And even if you do, this rhythm, like most, will run its course. Again, this is not because you are a failure as a writer. It’s because you’ve failed to understand what it means to actually invite writing into your life.
I could make a laundry list of what I have found – after two decades of writing and teaching – to actually be the essential elements of writing, and I sort of have, in the form of this log. But today’s subject is ease, primarily because we all seem to be living in the midst of a storm of concrete emotional boulders from which there seems to be little protection. Indeed, cultivating ease might feel like the very last thing you can do right now, but so does drinking a glass of cool water when your throat is parched and inflamed.
Even in the best of times, many of us have a natural suspicion around ease. It is, after all, just one letter way from the word ‘easy’, which probably means that we’re one slip of the pen away from sloth and disaffection when we dare to court ease. And so many of us are so freakin’ exhausted from the onslaught of social, political, and emotional hailstones out there that we secretly fear that the minute we give ourselves some breathing room, we’ll wind up on the couch eating bonbons for three months.
Here’s where the real work begins. Instead of running from that thought, try to gently ask yourself what’s behind that impulse. If you spend three months on the couch eating bonbons, so what? Maybe that’s exactly what you needed to do. Maybe you needed that time to release a lifetime of bottling yourself into small, acceptable containers. Maybe becoming zaftig and glossy-haired with good eating is the best possible thing you could do for yourself. Or maybe you’re eating bonbons to anesthetize yourself, hoping that if you can cram enough chocolate and sugar and fat down your throat, you’ll be able to suppress the voice that wants to come out, the one that will express what you really think and feel. You know, the kinds of things you need to say to get anywhere near the writing you need to do to feel fully actualized. Maybe you’ll have to go waaaaayyy down deep into the realm of self-loathing in order to finally put a line in the sand and do something meaningful for yourself. But I promise you this. If you really want to write, there’s nothing like a few months of not writing to get you itching to return to the page.
The point is, you need to start trusting your creativity before it will show up in any meaningful way for you. And at first, it will be like a 90-pound weakling trying to lift the 200-pound barbells you’ve hoped to bench press all your life. But creativity does not flourish if you bear down on it with all your weighty intentions. If, however, you listen very carefully to it, and appreciate, respect, and nurture what it has to offer you on a daily basis, it will show an astonishing amount of strength.
“But, but, but…” you say. What if it tells you it has nothing to say, and wants to go to the beach? Well, you go to the goddamn beach, if you can, and bring a notebook. Follow your nose for fifteen minutes. Jot down three sentences. Go back to following your nose, and make it thirty minutes this time. I promise you will have opened a line to your creative self far more quickly and efficiently than if you shoehorned all your efficiency and rigidly good intentions into a schedule designed to be both resistant to all Acts of God and waterproof.
The key is to remember that the writer’s job isn’t just about nurturing the writing; you’ve also got to nurture the writer. Before you start rolling your eyes, think about it. What happens when a pianist stops tuning a piano? Or when a writer leaves all her paints in the sun to shrivel up and die because they’re not covering 40% of the canvas, as per her excellent plans?
Instead, devote your vigilance to developing a keen awareness around the fact that you are the instrument of your writing, and you are an organic, changeable, unpredictable thing. So instead of insisting that you must write every day, insist instead that you must check in with your writing brain every day. At first, it will be a bit like checking in with a straightjacketed lunatic who can’t decide if she wants orange juice or the blood of virgins for breakfast, but that’s just because you’ve kept her locked up all these years just for being a little bit weird. Or unconventional. Maybe even stubbornly resistant to common wisdom around writing. Most of my favorite authors, incidentally, are weird, unconventional, and uncommonly wise.
Perhaps this means you’ll have to drop the stellar advice you once received from a Published Author to write a minimum of 20 minutes a day and exchange it for writing for five minutes twice a week, but who cares? Will you shrivel up and die if, after dedicating yourself to your writing, you enter a dry spell? Sometimes the writing doesn’t come for a reason. Maybe you’re defining it prematurely, like a stage mother with too much access to blue eyeshadow. Maybe it needs time to gestate or cook or otherwise wander freely around those areas of your brain that are gloriously wireless. Maybe reading this week, or walking, checking in regularly and honestly all the while, is what will get you where you need to go. Expect the dry spells. Expect that every so often, you’ll find that you’ve had to beg, borrow, and steal just to gain three uninterrupted hours over the weekend, but you wake up on Saturday thinking that everything you’ve ever written is crap and that the cat secretly hates you. Rather than put on your best Victorian look and descending dramatically into a spiral of misery by sticking to your plans, try to work with what you have instead. See if you can summon five minutes without having to get a restraining order against your inner critic. There are certainly days when I can get more done with five minutes of depressurized writing than I can with three hours.
The point is that to find flow, you often need to do some seriously releasing. You need to soften, and trust, like the earth does when we plant seeds in it. Who knows what will happen beneath that rich, impenetrable dirt, but time and time again, that miraculous sprout of green fights it way toward the sun. Not because you want it to, but because with the right tending and dedication, it gains enough strength to bypass all your grand ideas and blossom anyway.
Art: Pablo Picasso, The Dream