After allowing my novel to rest for half a year, I launched back in to make some major changes. I restructured the first hundred pages, shifted the personality of the main character, and changed her reasons for making a pivotal decision. As I revised, I experienced the complicated joy of being fully immersed in a project. The sensation is one of absolute concentration—I move into the cosmos of the book and see nothing beyond its boundaries—coexisting with absolute rebellion. I squirm, I want to get a glass of water, and then ice, then a coaster. I need to clip my toenails. When these powerful, contrary forces rise up, I know I’m in the heat of writing.
This discomfort reminds me of meditation, how part of me is drawn into the vast oblivion of silence and another part fights mightily to maintain the dignity of selfhood. The same contemplative muscles are at work. When we write, the true Self longs to surrender into a story where it thrives and knows itself integral to our larger human story. Meanwhile the false but righteous self fights to maintain its identity. In such moments we reside at the fulcrum between our temporal, physical plane and eternity. It’s thrilling and unpleasant, ecstatic and unbearable.
“I think that writers must try not to avoid knowing what is happening,” Anne Sexton wrote. “Everyone has somewhere the ability to mask the events of pain and sorrow… But the creative person must not use this mechanism any more than they have to in order to keep breathing.” Why? Our stories can be true only when we look directly, simply, and clearly into the nature of reality. “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here,” Annie Dillard writes. “Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” Revising is the contemplative practice of seeing and re-seeing “what’s going on here” and representing that on the page.
A writer’s capacity to tolerate discomfort, along with violent busts of elation and anguish, determines how deeply and for how long he or she can reside in the generative state. “Discomfort is the nerve ending of growth,” says Jonathan Rowe. Consider the endurance Junot Diaz needed to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:
The novel had me lost the entire process. The beginning only revealed itself at the end. Very frustrating to find yourself having to start at the beginning again, but that’s how this writing game is. Rarely anything linear about it. In the end I handed the book to my editor convinced that what I had written was a colossal failure. I spent the next eight months demoralized about the eleven years I had wasted on the book. Even after the awards, etc., it took a long time before I let myself look on the novel with any kindness.
The emotional rollercoaster ride tells us nothing about the worth of the process or our product. “Write a little every day,” advised Isak Dineson, “without hope and without despair. ” Hope is hope for the wrong thing, as T.S. Eliot so wisely reminds us, as is despair. We must walk the middle path.
Fortunately this is a skill we can develop. I can acknowledge my body’s restlessness without leaving my writing chair; I can recognize my ego’s rebellion and still immerse myself. I can tolerate my own dissatisfaction with the quality of my work and continue regardless. While writing, we choose again and again to be uncomfortable, going against both instinct and social norms and possibly good sense. From discomfort rises our best work. If we can hold paradox in our bodies, we can illuminate paradox within our stories. If we can practice walking the middle path on the page, we’re more likely to walk it with our lives. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
One way to ease the discomfort of writing is to do it with others! There are still openings in my Alone Together retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts this coming September 12-16. I’d love to see you there.
Things are gearing up at Wisdom Ways this fall. Join me for an introduction to spiritual memoir writing on Saturday, October 8th. If you’d like support and inspiration for sustaining your spiritual memoir writing, drop in on the second Fridays to explore a theme or aspect of the craft:
September 9: Journeys
October 14: Holy Play
November 11: Place
December 9: Symbols and Metaphors
Here’s more information on the monthly Writing the Sacred Journey sessions.