The Discomfort of Writing

The greatest nonfiction writers are the ones who are willing to put up with extremely uncomfortable, miserable thoughts, for days and weeks and years on end.   –Carol Bly

After allowing my novel to rest for half a year, I’ve recently launched back in to make some fairly major changes:   restructuring the first hundred pages, shifting the personality of the main character a notch, revising her reasons for making a pivotal decision near the end, along with many small tweaks.   In the process I’ve experienced the complicated joy of getting fully immersed.   The sensation is one of absolute concentration–I’ve moved into the world of my book and see nothing beyond its boundaries–alongside absolute rebellion.   My whole body revolts against this level of focus.   I squirm, I want to get a glass of water, and then ice, then a coaster; I need to clip my nails.   When these powerful, contrary forces rise up, I know I’m in the heat of writing.

Writing brings peculiar pleasures.   The discomfort of writing reminds me of meditation, how part of me is drawn into the vast, restful realm of silence and another part fights mightily to maintain the dignity of selfhood.   I suspect the same spiritual muscles are at work in both.   When we write, the true self longs to surrender into story where it thrives and knows itself integral to a unified, human story, while the false but righteous self fights to maintain its boundaries.   In such moments, we find ourselves right at the fulcrum of a temporal, physical plane of existence and eternity.   It’s both thrilling and unpleasant, ecstatic and unbearable, not unlike sex.

Carol Bly says the greatest nonfiction writers are those willing to put up with extremely uncomfortable thoughts for great lengths of time, but I suspect the experience of discomfort applies to all creative work and is comprehensive and full-bodied.   A writer’s capacity to tolerate this discomfort determines how deeply and for how long he or she can reside in that generative state.   Fortunately this is a skill we can develop.   I can acknowledge my body’s restlessness without leaving my writing chair; I can acknowledge my ego’s rebellion and still turn back to the work.   While writing I choose again and again to be uncomfortable, going against both instinct and social norms and possibly good sense.   But from my discomfort rises my best work, as well as profound awe for this paradoxical process.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

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