The Bystander

There’s a certain type of writer that emerges at the fringes of any healthy writing community. He or she shows up to events and listens carefully and reads faithfully and comments insightfully, but when you rightly sniff around to ask about any writing they might be doing, they get that old seasoned sea captain expression on their face and explain that they wrote, once, and cut you off to gaze off into the middle distance as they daydream about their one true love, the one that got away. Or, like a battle-weary soldier with half a limb hanging off, they glare at you as if you’ve miss the most obvious of points, which is that writing has hurt and abandoned them indelibly, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just going to pour salt on the wound. In either case (and in many other cases), there’s a sense that any idea of their own writing touches a nerve too tender to ever heal, that they’ve been given an irreversible sentence where writing is concerned and they’d rather not talk about it, thank you very much.

Here’s a little thought exercise, though, for shirts and giggles: replace every use of the word ‘writing’ in the above paragraph with ‘love’.

Curious, isn’t it?

I often talk to my students about writing as a relationship that needs time to grow strong, that showing up every day to it with integrity and honesty and humor and the best attitude you have available to you at the moment is the key to unlocking its charms. This seems counterintuitive to those who’ve only dipped their toes in, even if they’ve been standing by the side of the river for years. Because until you dive in, the river’s power seems insurmountable and maybe, if you stand there looking at it roiling by for too long, probably not even worth your time. Isn’t it better to just observe and admire, anyway? Who wants to get wet? After all, the human body is only, like 70% water, right? That leaves a whole other 30% that obviously wants nothing to do with anything that’s not safe and dry!

But what if you never really try to love? Never really try to form deep relationships? Or give yourself a timeline for these things, say, true love by forty or no love at all? A publishing contract by fifty or you never write again? How is that going to work/working for you?

The really sticky thing about all of this, unfortunately, is that it requires you to open your heart for target practice. Which is totally not OK, but clearly none of us gets to change how that works (and how many do all of us know that have tried with everything they’re worth?). But it’s SO much better than keeping it closed. If it’s closed, it never has a chance to expand, build the strength to weather the tenderizing, enjoy the new expansiveness that settles when new ground is cleared by loss. I’m pretty sure that, whether you want to write or love or live well, you’ll need to leave plenty of space to allow for the wobbly and wild range your heart is capable of. It won’t reward you with idealized love and Pulitzer prizes every day, but the countless untold and sweeter rewards that come have the very real potential to add up to so much more.

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