My friend Michael Hauge has an optimistic understanding of character development: characters don’t change randomly in a story, from a person who liked banking into a person who likes music, or a person with fear to a person with courage. They move gravitationally, towards a fuller expression of their (ignored, forsaken) true self.
What I have been doing: chewing compulsively through writer blogs— writers talking to each other, talking about writing, talking about their books, writers giving helpful advice. Most of them make me want to quit. Stephen King writes a nearly perfect book about writing and after reading it I’m ready to hang it up for good. Everything he says makes him seem so much smarter than I could ever hope to be, intimidatingly smart, his homey, small town dialect notwithstanding. And then he writes, if you aren’t enjoying yourself, don’t write.
My chest caves in with despair and lack of air. Some writers enjoy doing this. (Why? Because they were well-liked as children? Because they aren’t perfectionists? Because they have such huge egos they actually believe perfection can be attained, or has been attained, by them? Because they have practiced long enough? Because they have Aspberger’s?) However it happened, writing is so much fun for them that when they aren’t writing they share helpful tips, starting with, writing should be fun.
I am blessed to have a peaceful marriage, to a person that I really, truly, love. Steady, daily love, the good stuff, a person I am glad to see every morning after more than thirty years. I don’t have the same juju with writing, which turns out to be the great, unrequited love of my life. Every day has felt stolen, wrestled, cajoled, torn, cobbled. Every day I ask myself, should I have been a therapist? A teacher? A lawyer? I keep trying to change, but in the end, that’s the writer I turned out to be. Stephen King writes because he can’t not write, because he enjoys writing too much to stop. I fight to write, every day, against relentless doubts and fears. I write like somebody leaning into strong headwinds, trying to make it home without a coat or a compass. I write lost, and frostbitten, and terrified— when I am not hiding under my covers, taking a nap, planning alternate careers. I am not brimming with stories. I am a slow drip. I answer no to every “You are a writer if…” question on every internet quiz I have ever taken.
But still. There are all these years. I’m still here. Could we count those years for something?
I want to say, to myself, to all those other writers who might be out there, tormented and tongue-tied, not having fun, dreams buried under too many obligations and distractions and negative self talk: don’t give up. You’re still here.
A practice. What is a practice. A practice, I am learning from yoga, is something you do regularly, that changes, and your relationship to it changes, and you keep doing it, whether or not you feel the same way about it today as you felt yesterday. Like any relationship, the feelings are strong and fleeting. If you used the feelings as the only compass you would be quickly lost. How can it be that you fall so hard in love with a person, certain that this person is the one you were meant to be with, the one made for you, and then one day later, or fourteen years later, it’s gone in a wink, all those feelings, and in its place, as with J and L, is fear, and dread, and rage? I fall in love with yoga, I realize that doing it makes me feel centered, keeps me reverent and alert. I sign up for a year of it, thinking, yes, this is my practice. Suddenly it looks kind of raggy around the edges. Is this really what I want? Is this really worth doing every day? It’s so dull. It takes so much time. And who the hell is this weird guy, talking to me about breathing, and holding my shoulder blades back and down?
So practice. Practice is riding that out, until the next feeling arrives, and blooms, and passes, and the next. Sometimes the feelings will be tempting and intoxicating, places you want to stay a long time, this feeling of being strong, or peaceful, but those feelings pass, and then you are bored, or nauseated, or tired, or irritated. You think, why did I make a commitment to this? Look at all these people. Why in the world are they here?
I am not afraid of success. For some reason that idea makes me angry, makes me furious, makes me enraged. I can’t remember who said it, but it’s a commonplace that haunts me, that was thrown at me once, and I don’t even know what it means. Here it is: I am afraid of failing, of getting trapped in silence. Worse: what if I open my mouth to speak, or sing, and the song that comes out is croaked and broken, people can’t bear to listen to it, they wander away, and now they know two things they didn’t know before: how bad my voice is, and how much I wanted to be listened to. Wouldn’t it be better to bake cakes? Everybody likes cake. Isn’t this a fool’s game, the path of egomaniacs, narcissists, dreamers?
My writing practice is about becoming comfortable with that fear, touching its bristly, oily fur, running my fingers behind its ears, learning not to back away from it, learning to get past it, and sit down at the table and work.