Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Rare & Spectacular Moments of Transcendence As a Writer

There's this line from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones that has all but haunted me. She is writing about writing, and she says: We are not running wildly after beauty with fear at our backs.

Goldberg talks a lot about fear in this amazing book about writing. It seems she almost spends equal time talking about fear and overcoming resistance as she does on writing itself. As any writer knows, the two are often inextricably tied. We are all trying to capture moments of transcendence, but it sure takes a lot of toiling in the dirt to get there.

But sometimes the toil seems to take up all our attention. Hitting daily word count. Thinking up a plot and then producing scenes to knit it all together. Getting through a draft to meet a deadline. There are so many things to fear, even when you tell yourself not to be afraid, that fear and anxiety are stupid and just made-up impediments in your head. Goodness knows I've done this kind of writing for months at a time. I wrote a whole book last year like this. But telling yourself not to be afraid is like telling yourself not to think about something--suddenly it's all you can think about, all you can feel. I'd think about this line from Goldberg and want to scream: but how?? how do you release all the fear and only concentrate on the beauty?

And then there are shocking times like these past two weeks when inspiration hits, and like the proverbial rain storm after a drought, you just soak it in and think oh god I'd missed this so much. Suddenly writing doesn't feel like work, it feels like play. Everything you'd tried to force comes naturally. Sometimes you go through such long stints of the drought kind of writing that you don't think the transcendent moments can even exist anymore.

The key I'm discovering about beginning to enjoy writing again (which, I know plenty of writers will tell you, can be an unfortunate rarity): stick to the scenes I love best. And if I don't love a scene or a big portion of the book, transform it into something I do love and am interested in. This sometimes means BIG think-out-of-the-box changes, but when I sucked it up about the pages I needed to cut to transform the book, I felt the old giddiness inside. And I literally can barely stop myself from writing. It's not fighting to meet word count anymore, I just want to get to the next scene, and when I finish it, I'm eager for the next.

I remember the kind of stories I like best: big, epic, as melodramatic as possible within believable bounds, and of course at the center, a love story. The thing is, if I'm not really enjoying the scenes I'm writing, readers probably aren't going to enjoy them either. The whole fight of writing is getting to that deep emotional spark. Those are the kind of books we read and re-read and can't get out of our heads.

But it's hard, because I couple this idea that I need to love what I'm writing with the very pragmatic demands of being a writer. Sometimes you just need to produce words and pages, and allow it to be crappy, sometimes writing is just bland potatoes without any spice. If you hear writers giving writing advice, so much of what we will talk about is overcoming resistance, trying to just make ourselves sit down and write every day, stressing out over deadlines, feeling anything but love for our stories but forcing ourselves to do it anyway.

Usually what happens (and this is basically what the theme of Goldberg's very beautiful and practical book) is that as you force yourself to write and get into the disciplined habit of it, is that those beautiful moments with the emotional spark will come eventually. Sometimes they'll show up out of nowhere and then you look at the pages you've written with a kind of shocked, huh, that turned out really good! But there are other times like lately when I've been experiencing that even more rare magic of big ideas that seem to set everything into place. Those forehead slapping moments, lightbulb over the head moments, Archimedes jumping out of his bathtub and running down the street shouting Eureka! moments. I'm far from a mystical person, but what can I say that they seem to come from some place outside myself and all I can feel is a very deep gratefulness that I got to partake at all.

So I'm spending every moment I can writing, with more furious passion than I've felt in a long time. It feels good, so good.


  1. Oh, so true, so true. I cycle in and out of these writing "moods"--and you're absolutely right that the hardest to beat is the fear. It always surprises me, too, how I might not understand at all what it is that I'm afraid of, only that writing is suddenly so difficult, so painful. And when I figure out that block, how amazing it can be to feel actually excited about writing again. I remember why I'm miserable when I'm NOT writing. Thanks for the post, Heather! :)

  2. Great post Heather! I love the quote you used to begin and hope I can get the same enthusiasm and passion you've found. I am trying to pull out of a rut right now.

  3. Thanks guys. Yeah, it can be SO frustrating to be in these cycles and going in and out of ruts. In the back of my mind, I know it's because we're doing something that takes an awesome amount of creativity and hard work, but in the mean time it's enough to make a person feel CRAZY! I'm wishing good mojo upon you both!