I had a breakthrough with my memoir, Pilgrimage of Desire.
I was at my Thursday night Just Write meetup as usual. I wasn’t looking forward to working on the book. Ever since I picked it up again in February, writing sessions have ranged from discouraging to excruciating. In three months, I have managed to do the following:
- Read through the manuscript (and become convinced that the whole thing is awful).
- Read some journal entries from our time in Malaysia (heartsick with missing it).
- Do some exercises from Cate’s Re-Entry Reality book.
- Freewrite some random crap.
- Post a blog article (You Can’t Bake a Cake Without a Cake Pan).
- Write ONE paragraph.
The manuscript has been like a solid sheet of ice, cold and unyielding. I bloodied my fingernails trying to prize in that one paragraph. I tormented myself with thoughts that the book would never open to me again, that I would have to walk away leaving it half-formed.
Then last week, as I re-read Chapter 10 yet again, my heart was warmed with love for the words, for the person I’d been when I lived and wrote those scenes. They were good. I wanted to add to them. I tested the ice with my foot, and just like that it gave way, breaking apart to lively water underneath. I inserted a sentence. I reshaped a paragraph from my journal and placed it in. A new paragraph appeared, spontaneous and playful.
I was writing!
After 90 minutes, I had 997 new words in Chapter 10. Relief? Enormous. Suddenly I could imagine working on the book in the mornings, finishing a few chapters on a writing retreat. Pilgrimage had let me in again.
This experience reminded me of resistance. Because the difference between the book one week and the next was so palpable. To change analogies, it was as though an electric fence around the text, buzzing and menacing, had suddenly been switched off. I thought about how Steven Pressfield describes Resistance as a force field, repelling you away from the work.
I do believe that resistance is real, even though I disagree with a lot of advice for dealing with it.
Forcing yourself to work, citing discipline and “turning pro,” seems to me as foolish as crossing a live electric fence.
Yes, you might make it, but what damage will the voltage do? Wouldn’t it be better to cut the power first and cross over unharmed?
Before this great writing session, I read a post from Anne Lamott about the excuses people give for not writing, and how they’re “a total crock. There will never be a good time to write. It will never be easier. If you won’t find an hour a day now, you won’t find it then.”
The answer, Anne says, is just to decide to write.
I know there are people who need to hear her message, but I also know I’m not one of them. The reason I hadn’t been writing for an hour a day was because the electric fence was still humming. Pilgrimage was telling me she wasn’t ready yet, and I wasn’t ready. Maybe this sounds like an excuse, but I humbly suggest that my weekly Meetup appointments with her attest to the fact that I was not giving up, even while not hurling myself uselessly at that high-voltage fence every day. When I couldn’t write, I found safe things to do around the perimeter.
So why did the electric fence around Pilgrimage suddenly go off?
I don’t know exactly why, but I have a few guesses.
- Because the spring weather and the flowers have been glorious.
- Because I’ve been working with my coach on how to re-engage with the book.
- Because I wrote Pilgrimage a love letter back in March.
- Because I read a Facebook post from Danielle LaPorte that said, “Enjoy your sadness. It won’t last long.”
- Because I said a channeling prayer beforehand.
- Because I’ve been biking.
- Because I have proven my faithfulness every Thursday.
- Because I published an update about how things are going.
- Because enough time has passed.
This is just a theory, but I think that the current running through an electric fence is emotion. Mine was charged with grief, disappointment, nostalgia, and shame. A potent mix. Faced with all that emotion, it’s not enough just to say, “Write even when you don’t feel like it.” The emotion must be acknowledged and worked through. You can’t think or act your way around it.
The line between waiting and making excuses is a fine one, to be sure. But I trust myself to know which side I’m on.
I trust that I am not lazy. I trust my writing intentions. I trust my instinct that forcing would be harmful.
So, to answer my question in the headline.
When do you make a creative push and when do you wait?
You ask yourself.
Will pushing feel like healthy exertion or like being electrocuted?
Will waiting feel like patient presence or like evasion?
Then you pick the one that feels respectful of the work and of your writing desires. You don’t listen to the people saying “Real writers write every day,” or “Writing will never get easier.”
If you’re waiting, you make a regular appointment with your work and you keep testing the fence. Is it still on? What’s powering it? Is the voltage weakening? Do you want to look for the off switch?
And if you decide to push, you begin carefully, warming up and building slowly. You check in to make sure the pushing isn’t damaging you or the work.
Trust that you are not lazy. Trust your creative intentions. Trust your instincts about pushing or waiting.
And keep showing up.
Here’s the love letter I wrote to Pilgrimage. You can see it’s pretty emotional. I still feel strongly about her, but now it’s more like an electric blanket than an electric fence.
I love you and I miss you. I’m sorry that I’ve dealt with my painful feelings about you by ignoring you. That’s not fair to you, and it doesn’t help me in the long run either. We’ve had outside things keeping us apart ~ the summer busyness and our move and my illness and the other book ~ but I’ve also kept myself away from you because I didn’t want to know how much love or fear was there. But we both deserve better than that.
You deserve to shine in your fullness, to have your beautiful pages turned, to catch people’s tears and laughter, to see their epiphanies. You are worth any money. And I deserve to have you move through me, in all your pain and truth and delight. I deserve to deliver you to the world. Apologies for the melodrama, but you bring out the depths of me. No creative work has ever asked for more of me (although I know there will be others in the future). But the fact that you scour me out tells me that this is important work we’re doing together.
I do believe that the time we’ve spent apart will make you stronger and better. Your joy will be cut with bittersweet. You are more dimensional, and I am wiser in the way of cycles.
You make me want to be a better woman. More courageous, more self-caring, more in integrity. If no one else is touched by a sentence of you, you have been my teacher. My labyrinth. My mirror. You are worth the sacrifice, because you pay back a hundredfold.
Dearest, let’s begin again. I’ll be gentle. I won’t try to force myself back into your graces, I’ll approach deferentially, and we’ll find our rhythm again. I never could force you to come to me; you deserve to be courted. “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you,” to quote Mr. Darcy.
“Curiosity does, no less than devotion, pilgrims make.” — Abraham Cowley
Let us continue this pilgrimage of desire. I am ready to be broken open again.
Tell me. Have you pushed? Have you waited? How do you decide which to do when?