“Don’t be a writer if you can get out of it! It’s a solitary job, sometimes a rather lonely one (who’s listening? you say), and it requires relentless self-discipline. The world is not waiting with baited breath for what you turn out. A writer has to be some kind of nut to stick with it. But if, like the psalmist, you say, “My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned,” then perhaps you will have to write.” —Elisabeth Elliot
My writing partner, Laura, and I are up to our necks in another of our famously insane writing challenges. We’ve committed to tossing off eight chapters in our respective books by the end of February—and our husbands have gallantly committed to throwing a little two-person awards banquet at our favorite restaurant after we cross the finish line. Usually at this point in one of our writing sprees I’m starting to daydream about which dress I’m going to wear on the illustrious night, but this time I’m wondering if I’ll even make it to the dinner. Truthfully, this latest challenge couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. Life has been rushing in with such intensity of late that I feel like a very small boater on a very small craft gazing up at a bulging dam that’s about to give way. When I finally sit down to write, I’m so tired and scatter-brained that it has required copious amounts of caffeine just to get the grey cells firing, much less to help me remember where I left my subconscious mind. One day last week I woke rather dazedly from what Laura would call “the world’s most inappropriate nap”: head on my desk, tea grown cold at my left hand. And it’s not because I was bored with the story (at that point). One of my characters had just escaped being attacked by an alligator, for heavens’ sake.*
It was because I was exhausted, body and soul.
On paper, it looked like a great time for a writing challenge. In practice, it has been very, very hard. I keep sending Laura endearing little notes saying things like, “Life is crazy these days. Thanks to you.” And I really mean that with all my heart—thanks to her, I am writing again, for better or for worse. Writing like my life—my real life—depends on it.
Because the only thing ornerier than an exhausted writer is a writer who is not writing. It’s such a proverbial problem I’m actually a little surprised that Solomon didn’t mention something about it: “A writer that’s not writing is like a broken toe or a garden hose with a kink in it,” that kind of thing. It’s agonizingly annoying, reminding you of its noxious reality with every step. And if that hose has been strained long enough, it’s going to start springing leaks, trickling its gift into impervious driveways and patios, missing the garden altogether. I hesitate to carry the metaphor further because, obviously, I’m not Solomon, and I fear this one is getting away from me. But you catch my drift.
On the other hand, the times when I am doing my thing, guarding moments in which to put words down faithfully—whether they are any good or not—are the times in which I feel I am living my life, rather than being swept helplessly along in the current of time. There is a keenness to my days that intimates of eternity, an awareness of the world’s sorrow and loveliness that nearly breaks my heart. I don’t live in my thoughts so much as my imagination: the What If? factor is strong, kindling a madcap curiosity and near-delirious joy in the very ordinary world around me. When I am writing, my life is charged with light and color and music. And I don’t mean when I’m writing well—that doesn’t happen very often, if ever, really—I mean when my body is planted in my chair and my fingers are moving over the keys; when I am daydreaming over a blinking cursor, or, for a change, doodling a fountain pen over a creamy possibility of Moleskine goodness; when I am dancing in rhythm with my own unique drumbeat and actually cooperating with the routine I’ve fashioned to make this thing work.
But it is so hard. As much as I want to do this, I am always taken aback by how devastatingly easy it is to not do it. I am constantly evaluating my priorities, praying over my to-do list and seeking wisdom. Some days, however, I feel like I am pitted against an adversary that is stronger than me when it comes to just getting to my desk. And when I do manage to fight my way there, I have an even greater foe to contend with: the fear that I have nothing to say; the cold, slinking snake of thought that I have won the battle but lost the war. My head swirls with lists of people I need to call, emails I have got to send, things I simply must not forget to do—and a crushing sense of failure that I’ve merely forwarded all this from the day before. It can be as daunting, figuratively speaking, as the very gates of Mordor.
As a woman, I struggle daily to care for everyone and everything that needs me without sacrificing my creative life. (I realize that men struggle too, in different ways, but I obviously have a limited viewpoint on the matter.) And when things get too out of hand, my writing is the first thing to go.
Sometimes it needs to go, of course; there are emergencies.
But not always. That would be wrong, because, for me, the call to love as I have been loved means, among other things, sitting all by myself in a room staring at an often-blank computer screen. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I used to imagine that any resistance along the path of my aspirations meant I’d inadvertently rammed my head against the will of God; I imagined that interruption and discouragement were His way of telling me I ought to be doing something—anything—other than what my heart most longed to do. (Deplorable theology, I know.) I remember one afternoon a few years ago I took a break from my writing to come downstairs and make some tea (caffeine, remember). Casually glancing out the window over the sink, I noticed a sinister haze of smoke tumbling over the kitchen yard and realized to my slow-growing horror that the west pasture was on fire. “Well, God,” I wanted to say, “you didn’t have to go to all that trouble to get me away from my desk!” Mercifully, I don’t see it that way any more: these days, resistance looks more like Apollyon standing arrogantly astride Christian’s path; like the combined forces of the world, the flesh and the devil, pitted against my efforts to follow a call I’ve heard, a summons as wild and strange and full of longing as the cry of wild geese over a winter landscape. Resistance means there is probably something on the other side worth fighting for. Making art is waging war on all the inner demons and the outer distractions that would keep us silent and compliant in this world. But knowing all that doesn’t make the actual war any easier.
One thing that sure helps, though, is the knowledge that we’re not alone. A good flesh and blood comrade is worth more than all the writing books and conferences in the world. Laura really is my lifeline in this exhilarating, often lonely journey of a writing life and I seriously do not know what I would do without her. (Probably not write books, for one.) She and I consistently get dressed up and meet for “writer’s lunches,” complete with trim notebooks and usually a chapter or two to exchange in pretty, flowered file folders. We also bring along our complaints: our gripes with how dratted hard this is; our tooth-and-nail struggles to hear our own voices amid the clamor of life; our failures. One day at the end of last summer we gave over a goodly portion of our Pad Thai to this airing of grievances, until finally, worn-out with ourselves, we stopped and stared at each other across the table.
Allright, that gaze seemed to say. Enough. Just what under heaven we are going to do?
Laura proposed an excruciatingly honest evaluation of how we spent our time—not just days, but moments.
“Call me in a week,” she said, “and tell me what you’re going to give up. And I don’t mean something easy—I mean something that hurts.”
In Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh talks about how women really resent spilling themselves in little trickles that don’t seem to do anyone much good. They long to pour themselves out by the pitcher-full, she writes, to give in a way that is both sacrificial and effective. I am just beginning to understand that sacrificial living means, of all things, sacrifice. It means giving things up—not things I don’t want anyway, but things I want, just not as bad as I want other things. And this is the very point upon which my attempts at a disciplined writing life intersect with my yearnings for a holy life—a life which sings to God, “I love You!”—namely, the more intimate I am with my own struggles and failures and calling as a writer, the more inseparable the act of writing becomes from devotion itself. It’s not just one more thing I want to do; it is my spiritual act of worship. My obedience.
Laura understands this, and it’s like a warm, friendly hand in the dark when I’ve been groping my way through a lightless cave of writerly panic. Even sweeter is the knowledge that she understands, without my clumsy efforts at articulation, just how good is the joy of it all. Even when we’re drowning under our own, self-made deadlines.
Or, perhaps, especially so.
Next time you see Laura, give her a hug (and maybe a bottle of champagne). She’s literally saving my life, one writing challenge at a time.
Any of you ladies out there want to weigh in on weapons and means you have found to fight this war of resistance? Of course, the menfolk are welcome to chime in, as well, though the challenges presented often look a lot different on the surface of things. And I have a suspicion, though by no means a scientific one, that women face some really unique challenges in this area. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned from your time in the trenches.
*No promises that such a harrowing episode will make it into the final book—this is, after all, a draft. I’ll have to make sure that Jonathan Rogers doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of alligators in Southern fiction.