Writer’s Log, September 18th: Opening the Door

One of the most confounding aspects of writing is how hard it can be to just get started. We finally finish playing whack-a-mole with all the usual demands on our time, manage to squirrel away an hour or two to ourselves, only to sit down, take a deep breath, turn on the computer, wait patiently for a few minutes, panic, and start watching YouTube. Rinse and repeat.

Yes, I’m looking at you.

Traditionally, most of us shame or question ourselves when this happens. We tell ourselves we have nothing to say, and that our hoary third grade teacher was right when she said we had no work ethic. Or we decide we have writer’s block, as if all this writing stuff is entirely out of our hands and something outside ourselves is preventing us from getting in. Or we doubt our sanity and talent, privately but deeply concerned that we’re willing to move heaven and earth to get the chance to write, only to squander those precious few hours or minutes in procrastination and misery.

I’ve been writing regularly for over twenty years, and I am still not immune to this wicked cycle of self-flagellation. But I’ve learned the hard way that there are excellent reasons for why it’s so hard to begin, none of which have anything to do with mysterious forces beyond my control, or the imminent discovery of my worthlessness as a human being, or an undiagnosed mental illnesses (all mine have been diagnosed, thank you very much). Instead, I’ve found that understanding the nature of this particular beast is a huge asset in learning to step past it with all my limbs intact. And the truth is, I think this reluctance to begin that so many writers punish themselves over is actually an excellent sign of a healthy psyche.

In fact, I find it particularly odd that we’re so willing to tear ourselves down in the face of this resistance, when the reasons why it shows up are so eminently practical. As a for instance, many of us know that the best writing comes from a place of authenticity and honesty, two qualities many of us have yet to consistently share with our own children, and yet we freak out when they can’t be summoned at the snap of our fingers. And we also know that writing involves venturing into the dark unknown of our own minds without a flashlight, and yet we still berate ourselves for hesitating at that threshold. We’ll even readily admit at cocktail parties that it’s entirely possible we’ll pour years into our work and it still might not see the light of the day, yet what we’re willing to laugh over with strangers can become perfectly beastly behind closed doors.

To add salt to the wound, many writers tend to come to writing because we love reading, and we can’t get enough of it, and we’ve formed Very Strong Opinions about what constitutes a successful foray on the page. So right out of the gate, we have exceptionally high – if not downright inhuman(e) – standards. And if we come to our own budding efforts without checking these standards at the door, it’s a little like holding Michelangelo’s David above the head of the nearest kindergartner getting ready to open his finger paints.

It’s no wonder that every last protective mechanism within you raises its hackles when faced with a blank page. And for good reason! But you know what has an even better reason for pushing forward? Every part of you that ever sought to be heard, to lead a meaningful life, and to realize the kind of fulfillment only the most worthwhile, intentional risks can bring. If you can just manage to shift back into that perspective every now and then, you have to admit that self doubt really doesn’t have a place in all this, nor does it stand a chance.

So yes, it can feel damn near impossible to get started. But that’s not because there’s something wrong with you. In fact, it’s because there are several things right with you. It’s probably an indication that you’re ready to take the kinds of risks that make that little man in the hard hat who likes to stomp around planting safety cones in your head go weak at the knees. It’s also an indication that you care about what you’re about to do, and, what’s more, that you have the sensitivity and sensibility to carry it out. For all these reasons and thousands more, this resistance is a sign that you’ve hit upon something vital that needs to be expressed, and that you are the person best suited to the job.

It’s been said that writing is a gift that sours in the hand. When it comes to the writing life, I’m not sure truer words have ever been spoken. Your writing wants out of you, but it’s going to spend a lot more time festering if you bear down on every unexplained difficulty it presents with shame and judgment. Instead, if you come to expect – nay, welcome, as a sign of a healthy mind and a worthy heart – the resistance you face when you come to the door that leads to so many unknowns, and you gently wait until your hand steadies on the knob instead of beating your head against it, you might be amazed at how quickly that fear can slip away. Because more often than not, opening the door is the hardest part. Once you’re in, you’ll only wonder how you managed to stay away for so long.  

Art: Georgia O’Keeffe, “Patio with Black Door”

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