Consider this conversation I had with my nine year old today:
“I need some stuff so I can write a letter to my cousins.”
“That’s a great idea. What do you need?”
“Pajamas, purple ink pens, lined paper, a cup of yogurt—no—a carrot so it won’t melt under the blanket, ice water in a bottle, one of the red blankets—the small ones, not the short ones because those won’t cover my whole body, and a fan right over me so I don’t get hot under the blanket, and the flashlight so I can see.”
“Why not leave the blanket off? So you have light and air.”
“But if you’re too hot?”
“I have to be under the blanket to write what I’m thinking about.”
“Can you share with me what you’re thinking about?”
“Whatever I come up with while I’m writing.”
All of this speaks to her reason for writing, her motivation and purpose, rather than some dramatic flair to be indulged or discouraged (how patronizing, in either event). There is a connection between the significance of the content of her writing and her level of elaborateness: when I ask her to write about the weather, the length of time it takes a bean to sprout in a peat pot, or the way to express decimals in a multiplication problem, she does not discourage daylight or moan for purple ink. In the construction and observance of her (important, personal) writing ritual, she has absolute possession of the idea that her intentions, her emotional investment, and the sanctity and ceremony of her writing are one.
Pragmatism and hard experience have the tendency to rob creative endeavor, and life in general, of its ceremony, treating any requirement as a sign of something less than seriousness. Hobbyists buy fountain pens, serious writers write in the thirty seconds it takes to microwave cold coffee, bleary eyed because real writing means getting up before everyone in the house, staying up long after they are all in bed again at night, real writers never bellyache, remembering that they are not owed any particular privilege, but they are blessed to be self- denying enough to endure criticism and rejection and bad nutrition and sleep deprivation, not to mention the embarrassing fallout of neglectful hygiene, in order to craft entire novels, two or three sentences at a time while coffee reheats.
So says a barrage of advice aimed from blogs and magazine articles at all those pokey, whiney, self-indulgent writers who complain they are too busy to write. Being me, I don’t respond blossomingly to grouchiness, although I understand the desire to promote realism.
A friend I completely love just sent out this Pema Chödrön quote: “At some point we need to stop identifying with our weaknesses and shift our allegiance to our basic goodness. It’s highly beneficial to understand that our limitations are not absolute and monolithic, but relative and removable.”
It’s a balm, really, to be reminded that I don’t always have to be hard on myself. That I don’t have to feel lazy because I believe that successful writing, or whatever the nature of the endeavor, is better if viewed less as a problem of self-discipline and more as the center of a worthwhile purpose for which I am willing to make whatever room I need in life. I may be thinking about a story I’m working on while the kettle boils, but I am more likely to be sweet talking the dog out of knocking over the garbage can, tying up the tomato vines, answering the phone, finding blankets and purple pens, or a hundred other things that are proportional snugged into stray minutes.
Writing, my core creative purpose, is not proportional to bits of pieces of moments. Writing a story, as I unwind a thread of an idea from the center, is not proportional to reheating coffee.
That’s not to say a story, unwinding, doesn’t find its way into the corners of every act, every thought and dream, but this image seems the other way around to me. The essence permeates, infiltrates the air, the earth, so it cannot be lived around—this is the way I prefer to see writing rather than as the product of insistent multi-tasking. The call is not an imposition, though I’d never claim it’s always comfortable or easily managed.
Like my nine year old, I find I would like to reinstate requirements—time, space, tea—the ceremonial aspects of deep concentration. I don’t always have to squeeze a story in (or out) between lane changes in heavy traffic to prove I’m tough or serious or whatever the emotionally rugged equivalent of serious might be.
I believe that successful writing, or whatever the nature of the endeavor, is better if viewed less as frowning, preaching self-discipline and more as the center of a worthwhile purpose for which I am willing to make whatever time and space I need. Maybe this is only an attitude shift, but it’s one that involves gentling, focusing, opening up—all good indicators, in my opinion.
* * * Please feel free to share your own writing or creative ceremonies. What nurtures your process?