On not writing and the creative life

I came across this piece by novelist Daniel Jose Older on not writing every day. And my heart cheered Yes! Yes. Yes to the nth degree.

Earlier this month I had space in my schedule. School for the kids had started; I had no medical writing assignments in sight. I will write, I thought. Who knows when I'll have this time again? I had nothing to write about. No story in my head. No matter—don't other writers just sit at the blank screen and stuff just pours out of them? Don't they say that if you just sit your butt in the chair and force yourself then the words will come because it's just work and willpower and moving those fingers on the keyboard? Doesn't everyone say shitty first drafts and just keep going and just do it--?

I tried. It was a disaster.

Because sometimes, as Daniel JoseOlder writes in his essay, the story you're working on just isn't ready to be written yet. Because, as he says, "brainstorming is part of writing, too." Every writer is different. But for me, yes, there's a lot of brainstorming and thinking that needs to occur before I ever write a line of a story. I need to know the overall structure; I need to know the major plot points and scenes and where it all ends up. I might not know how it all connects, how a character is going to get from here to there, but at least I know the major points on the map.

I need to know these things before I write.

That time spent thinking and reading and researching? The time spent standing under a long, hot shower? The walks I take, the time that looks like sheer daydreaming? That all counts as "writing," too. It might not look like writing, but it is. It's necessary.

For most of my adulthood, creative writing has been something for the margins of my life. Writing—both the invisible thinking prelude and the physical act itself—have been pushed to the corners, stolen from the hours after the children are asleep and the day job done. It's not been the center, and making it the center actually stresses me out. When I worked full-time in the lab—when I was going through a rough time in my last year as a scientist—writing was an escape. Ideas came bubbling up between experiments, as I waited for a centrifuge to stop spinning or an incubation to finish. The perfect word would come, unexpectedly, as I stared out the cafeteria window.

When I've tried to force the writing—when there's nothing there, but I try anyway because I feel that's what I'm supposed to do that's what a real writer does and I'm building narrative from thin air, with no foundation pre-laid—well, it holds together about as well as you'd expect a house of air to stand.

This is what I did a few weeks ago: I tried to write an unbaked idea and I failed and it was awful. And I played with a few other ideas, but they were all unbaked, unformed, and I couldn't tell which ones were worth anything at all. And I felt panicked, because I had blank space on the calendar and these empty days were a gift; I didn't have anything to do but write, so if I wasn't writing I was wasting time and and proving that I wasn't a real writer at all. 

And then I got an e-mail from a client and I was terribly relieved and I lost myself in a medical writing assignment for 1 ½ weeks.

And this is what I happened while I was focused on my technical writing assignment: a certain story idea kept circling back to me, whispering to me in the interstices of the day. An idea that wouldn't leave me alone. And so I knew, after all, which story idea was perhaps worth pursuing.

This is the way I've written: mulling ideas while going about daily life, earning a living with non-fiction tasks; cooking dinner, folding laundry, bathing children. This is the way I've written: when I felt that a story was ready. When I can't not write any longer because a story or passage or even a blog post is pounding away at the inside of my head, no longer able to be contained.

No, I don't write every day. And I've gone long periods without writing at all. After graduating from college, I didn't write for years as I focused on grad school and becoming a scientist and trying to "make it" in a brutally competitive profession.

But I found my way back to writing. And then I left it again for nearly three years. And then I found my way back.

I like to think that I'll always keep writing now, that I won't leave again. I try to always have something, some project, burning in the background of my mind, no matter how busy the days. But there are still times—like a few weeks ago—when I find myself at a loss, the well run dry. When I feel I'll never have a good idea again. Or when damn it, I just don't feel like writing. When I'd rather go to the park with my family, or take a bike ride with my kids. Stay up and have a conversation with my husband. Live. That's important, too. 

I come back to these sentences that Lev Grossman wrote, one of my writing heroes. In a beautiful essay at Buzzfeed he wrote about how he nearly lost his mind as a 22-year old neophyte writer, convinced of his own genius, who thought that the way to write was to isolate himself like a monk in the wilderness, cutting himself off from everyone he knew so as to dedicate himself wholly to Art.

He lasted six months in his self-enforced isolation before packing it in. He drove back to civilization, got an office job, and wrote his novels alongside a typical working life. And Grossman ends his essay with these lovely words:

"The creative life is forgiving: You can betray it all you want, again and again, and no matter how many times you do, it will always take you back." 

This is what I believe. What I hope. Because I've strayed from writing, again and again, and I hope to always be coming back.



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