Writer’s Log, May 1: The Rules of Engagement

So recently, my sister got me hooked on this particularly odd show on the History Channel called “Alone.” It features 10 survivalists who are each flown to an uninhabited area of Vancouver Island during the rainy season. It features a surprising number of grown men crying, curious bears and indignant cougars, and an up-close-and-personal exposure to what happens when people are left to wander the recesses of their own minds unimpeded.

I began watching because I’m fascinated by humans who can do things way beyond my own capabilities, so the last thing I expected was to feel solidarity or recognition in their experiences. But as the footage from their personal cameras started rolling in, there was far more white-knuckled, panicky-eyed references to spending time alone and in your own head than I ever imagined. Oh! I thought by the end of the first episode, it’s just like writing!

Sure, with writing, many of us have snacks and couches and central heating to help us navigate the inner reaches of our own minds, but if you’ve ever been on the wrong side of a trip down memory lane, you know that these things are worth jack when it comes to confronting your inner demons. And now that so many of us are spending far more time alone or away from those delicious distractions that seem important but are really just there to keep us from going down those dark paths, I’m sure this is feeling more real than ever. Maybe, when the quarantine started, you thought you might get some more writing done. Maybe you secretly hoped you’d get a lot more writing done than you have for a while. And maybe you did, or are, or have.

Or maybe you started out with all these great plans, only to run inwardly shrieking from the unleashed thoughts that started piling up after a few hours in the wilderness of your own head. Because when you open the gates to your unbuttoned thoughts and let yourself soften into the truth and vulnerability of what you most want to say, lots of creepy crawlies are going to make their way through, too. There’s no filter or watchdog at these gates, no sign that says “No Neuroses Allowed.”

And so your best intentions might have left you feeling like you should throw in the towel. But the truth is, if this is happening to you, it’s an excellent sign that now might be an ever greater opportunity to move your writing forward than you imagined. Just now might be the perfect time to notice that these demons aren’t going anywhere, and managing them has less to do with shouting word counts at them and more to do with establishing some boundaries around how much attention you’re going to give them. Naturally, you’re going to notice them. But if you find that you can draw every inch of their craggy faces from memory, it might be time to set up some of your own rules of engagement.

You might, for instance, remember that you are 99.9% responsible for whether or not you are writing. It doesn’t matter what invisible monsters or visible toddlers are shouting in your ear; you can put your hands on a keyboard or grab a crayon for five minutes a day and scribble something down.

By the same token, you might set yourself very low expectations, production-wise, and very high expectations, integrity-wise. Instead of wrassling with that horrible childhood memory, trying to wrangle it into 2000 words, maybe you just ask yourself if you can release it for five minutes and see what else comes forward.

Or maybe you choose to stand up for what you believe in and the meaningful life you want to model for your children and get clever about merging parenting and self-care. Maybe you write for 20 minutes by the nightlight, or lock yourself in the bathroom for 20 minutes if you’ve got another responsible adult around. You might insist on this M-F, like it’s your job to, say, show the people you love that you respect your creative impulses and dreams and think that tenacity in the face of a culture that regularly demeans and discourages artistic work is worth cultivating.

Just saying.

I hope you’re already writing. I hope you need none of these reminders. But I need them approximately every 14 minutes, so know that you’re not alone. And please consider that this incredibly rare moment is one that is calling for you to shift your focus, at least temporarily, to refining your engine, rather than covering great distances. It’s not that you won’t write a lot. You might write acres, particularly once you ease up on that throttle. Or you might write two sentences before deleting five. Just don’t forget that some of your greatest accomplishments as a writer will happen not when the words are flowing, but when they’re not.   

Art: Henri Matisse, Icarus

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