Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Putting Pen to Paper

Ever since I was four years old, when I penned (or crayon-ed) the first story I can remember writing, I have felt called to write. I think the story was about fireworks and how pretty they are.

I was in high school when I first read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Since then, I have re-read it a number of times, different sections here and there as well as the whole way through. One part stands out to me, a part that has resonated in my memory and echoes what I feel:
"Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity..."
My growing collection of books on writing
I know what I want to do, what I need to do. I want to move people through writing, the way art and music and films move people. The problems that arise are the same things that stand in the way of anyone's dream... they are the reasons we don't all open a bakery, start our own fashion line, or star in a blockbuster movie (or do whatever it is you dream of doing!). It's the reality of life. We have bills to pay, spouses and kids to care for, friends and family to keep in touch with, work to do, houses to maintain. And the fears inside ourselves.

Fear gets in the way of pursuing one's calling. It's not always comfortable. I always want to feel wonderful, rested and inspired when I sit down to write. But the reality is that I am usually tired after a long day at work with a stomachache from eating too much ice cream. My back hurts and my mind is distracted with random worries and the reality show that's playing on TV. There is never the perfect time. And there is always the fear of failure... my perfectionism doesn't help there. What if my writing sucks tonight (or always!)? What if the idea I have in my head doesn't come out the way I would like on paper?

The solution is to put pen to paper... or fingers to keyboard. Sentences may be a struggle, and the right words might be hard to find. But the only way to finish is to start. The only way to improve is to practice. The only way to create something beautiful is to make a lot of really horrible attempts.


This idea of just putting "pen to paper" makes me think of a book I have referenced over and over again, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I also read this book for the first time in high school, and I still treasure my semi-worn paperback copy. Lamott's voice comes off the pages as if she is a live person in front of me. She speaks (writes!) of her writing experiences and all the ups and downs, just as she does during the classes and workshops she teaches, using real words, stories and emotion. Reading this book feels like listening to an interesting friend as she explains the inspiration, obstacles, and successes of writing - and how those experiences translate to life. Here are a couple parts from the first few chapters that compel me to simply get the words out...

On the journey of writing:
"There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that now you know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go - but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages."
On why we write:
"What's real is that if you do your scales every day, if you slowly try harder and harder pieces, if you listen to great musicians play music you love, you'll get better. At times when you're working, you'll sit there feeling hung over and bored, and you may or may not be able to pull yourself up out of it that day. But it is fantasy to think that successful writers do not have these bored, defeated hours, these hours of deep insecurity when one feels as small and jumpy as a water bug. They do. But they also often feel a great sense of amazement that they get to write, and they know that this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. And so if one of your heart's deepest longings is to write, there are ways to get your work done, and a number of reasons why it is important to do so.

"And what are those reasons again? my students ask.

"Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life - wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean."
I'm grateful for the black words on the white page, the sentences that create a living, breathing story, a time and place with people and plot. I'm grateful for the connection between writing and life - the historical and fictional and current worlds, the small but vitally important details, the emotions evoked and experienced, the complexity of people and relationships.

What do you feel called to do? As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, what are you grateful for? Have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend!

11 comments:

  1. oh my gosh, i LOVED this post. my boyfriend is in the final days of NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org - which maybe you'd consider doing next year?!) and i sent him your post as he is struggling with a lot of the things you mentioned.

    i also have always wanted to write - it's a dream for the future :)

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  2. Some people (like you) are blessed with the gift of amazing writing. Thank you for taking my share of the writing gene...you use it very well! I read your blogs sometimes and think, "She makes it sound so easy!" :)

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  3. Diane - I did attempt NaNoWriMo a couple years ago! It is a lot of fast and furious writing, and I didn't get to the final goal, but I definitely ended up with the longest piece I have ever written. Hope your boyfriend found it rewarding! Best of luck to him in those difficult final days! And I hope you have a chance to write too if it's your dream :)

    Amy - thanks so much for your support :) Don't be too hard on yourself and your own abilities. Everyone has something to offer through writing!

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