QUESTION OF THE DAY: WHY IS WRITING SO DAMN EXHAUSTING?
A friend of this page named Kat asked me this question this morning, and I thought I would try to answer it here. Poor Kat is suffering through her work right now, in a way that is familiar to me (beads of sweat pouring off your forehead as you try to create while sitting totally still in front of a keyboard.)
I have cried over my work in the past. There are splotches of blood and tears staining every page of my first novel, "Stern Men", for instance, because it was a real anguish to write that book. Mostly, it was an anguish born of doubt. Having only written short stories before, I had no idea if I could sustain several hundred pages of narrative. I felt I was over my head. I feared that I was humiliating myself with this dumb-ass story that nobody would care about. I was certain that I was a fraud. I believed the book was basically a big load of bullshit. I would sit in the bathtub at night and cry in fear about it. I would lay my head down on my desk during the day and feel a thousand years old, trying to squeeze out another paragraph. It felt like the words were being pulled out of my skin like old surgical staples. It was, to put it mildly, a deeply uncomfortable experience.
So I know all these feelings. But I don't have them anymore. Haven't had feelings about my work like that in over ten years. This does not mean that writing has become EASY for me. It was never meant to be easy. None of the things in life that are really worth doing are easy. Writing is complicated and requires effort. But writing doesn't make me suffer anymore. Because about a decade ago, I made a big shift. I decided to TRUST. I decided to trust that I was not a fraud. To trust that I was not a loser. To trust that my sense of myself was not dependent upon critical reactions to my work. To trust that I was correct as a young person when I sensed that I was supposed to be a writer. To trust that I loved this work for a reason. But here is the biggest thing — I decided to trust the radical idea that, not only did I love writing, but that WRITING LOVED ME IN RETURN.
I can't stress enough how absolutely transgressive an idea this is (that your work might love you) in a world where the contemporary artist is constantly and romantically depicted as somebody who is at war with herself, at war with her demons, at war with her muses, at war with her craft. We have so swallowed this notion of the suffering artist that we sometimes, perversely, believe that if we AREN'T suffering as we work, then we aren't doing it right. That we aren't approaching THE EDGE. And so we struggle and strain, and, of course, the work struggles and strains right back against us. Of course the work fights back, when it senses that you are trying to fight it. Anything in this world that you fight will, in response, fight you back. This is a simple rule of nature.
Our realities are composed of the stories that we choose to tell ourselves. So I changed my story. These days, as I work, I tell myself that the book I am trying to create loves me and is trying to help me to bring it forth. I ask my work in progress (sometimes aloud, literarily) "How can I help you to assist me?" I make promises to it that I will not get in a futile sweaty wrestling match against it. I don't try to bribe my work, or cajole it, or trick it, or in any way treat it as if it is a petulant child (or else IT WILL ACT LIKE ONE.) I treat my work with the highest respect. I assume that my work is not struggling against me, but merely trying as hard as it can to be clear to me. Nor do I believe that my work is punishing me, or toying with me. It's just that the unborn book has no human language with which to communicate itself to me, and it is being transmitted from a great and strange distance, and sometimes I can't quite hear it well. But I elect to believe that the work wants to be born, and moreover that it wants to be born through me. If the process feels difficult at times, this is only because the two of us (me and the unborn work) are trying to do something really interesting and odd with each other — some sort of wild interspecies cosmic communication. If I am patient and trusting, it will eventually show me the way. I have made a firm commitment to believing this idea.
So here is my question – What if you believed that your work loved you? Whatever your work may be — what if you absolutely committed yourself to the certainty that it really, really loves you? What needs to change in your life, to believe that? What would it take, to believe that? What needs to be shed, to believe that?
Trust = No more tears.