Creative Discomfort

“You’re really enjoying writing these days,” a friend recently said. She was mirroring back to me my enthusiasm for my current project, a middle grade novel sprinkled with fantasy that occupies my mornings and then travels with me into the rest of my day like an invisible jungle gym for the heart. I desperately want to play in that world. I adore the characters, who are foolish, hilarious, wise, and fun. The plot presents me with conundrums I puzzle over as I wash dishes or fall asleep. I get to turn my weird passion for metaphysics into a form of magic for kids. Yes! I’m really enjoying…

…well, everything other than writing. Writing, dear friend, is a slog. I’m lucky if I generate a thousand words in a morning. Language escapes me these days; my prose is lackluster. I sit at the dining room table which is my desk, squirming, getting up for a cup of tea, returning to bang out a sentence I then delete, rising again to clip a hangnail now!, returning to crank out the next paragraph.

On the ground, there’s nothing glorious about this process. I haven’t written “in the flow” since, when? My memoir, thirty years ago? Sometimes students complain that they’re slow writers. Darling, I want to say, you’re just getting started. Remember Thomas Mann? “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

These days I believe that, more than skill or talent or experience or inspiration, what makes a writer is the capacity to sit with discomfort. A willingness to be humbled. The ability to hold yourself to the fire. A fearlessness in the face of your own ineptitude, as Michael Cunningham quipped. While in foresight or hindsight creativity may seem romantic, in the moment it’s plain old grueling work.

And while progress is slow, I always know on the other side of the slog that a sentence, a crummy paragraph, a shitty first draft, a better second draft, a hopeful third draft, a polished tenth draft, exists that didn’t prior. The lover of metaphysics in me rejoices: Something came from nothing! The universe is changed, however mildly.

Certainly I’m changed. I’m learning my limitations. I’ve come to value practice and process over product. I suspect any glimmer of truth in my writing does not come from me. My ego is ground down by the work while my soul celebrates. Half of what we make when we write is who we become.

We get to create the world we inhabit—at least in part. If it takes all of this discomfort to manifest on the page the wondrous story of my imagination and a humbled self, so be it.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew