I’m hard on myself. I always have been. I push myself to inhuman lengths to accomplish arbitrary goals like “keep my 4.0” or “carry this chair across the store” or “write that book in six months.” Even worse, I’m always trying to outdo myself. Once I’ve carried the sixty-pound chair across the store alone, I can’t just ask for help the next time. Once I’ve read 110 books in one year, I can’t just read eighty-five. I always have to beat the record, or else I’m falling behind.
This is an impossible way to live, but I didn’t realize how much harm I was inflicting until I tried to write a book in six months while working thirteen-hour days between two jobs. After six weeks, I burned myself out and couldn’t write for two months. During those two months — eight weeks when I couldn’t even think of writing without feeling ill — I had to confront some hard truths.
Hard Truth #1: I wanted to quit my job.
Hard Truth #2: I couldn’t afford to quit my job.
Hard Truth #3: I was going to quit my job anyway, because it was slowly killing me.
So I turned in my two weeks’ notice.
No sooner had I clocked my last shift than I got a text from a former professor, asking if I’d be willing to speak to her class.
“Of course!” I said. “What about?”
“The writing life,” she said. Specifically, my dedication to it, and what it looked like to have a job that allowed me the time and energy to write.
I had to laugh.
As I prepared for the talk, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t the right person for the job. I’d given up on my book. I hadn’t finished an essay in three years. I hadn’t picked up a pen all month, except to whine in my journal. Worse, my friends were out there writing stories, drafting books, and publishing poems, while I sat at a table and mouthed words about sacrifice and dedication and their importance to the writing life when the only thing I’d sacrificed was a shitty retail job. Who was I to tell a group of wide-eyed freshmen how to cultivate their writing?
* * * *
In her memoir Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert describes her encounter with a voice. She hears it in the wee hours of the morning as she lies curled on the bathroom floor in a pool of snot and tears, begging God to tell her what to do.
And so the prayer narrowed itself down to that simple entreaty — Please tell me what to do — repeated again and again. I don’t know how many times I begged. I only know that I begged like someone who was pleading for her life. And the crying went on forever.
Until — quite abruptly — it stopped.
Quite abruptly, I found that I was not crying anymore. I’d stopped crying, in fact, in mid-sob. My misery had been completely vacuumed out of me. I lifted my forehead off the floor and sat up in surprise, wondering if I would see now some Great Being who had taken my weeping away. But nobody was there. I was just alone. But not really alone, either. I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence — a silence so rare that I didn’t want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don’t know when I’d ever felt such stillness.
Then I heard a voice. Please don’t be alarmed — it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm, and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life.
The voice said: Go back to bed, Liz.
It’s been seven weeks since I spoke to that freshman class, and today, I am happy and confident. I’ve written five pages of the best essay of my life, I’ve adopted a low-pressure writing schedule that’s molded to my quirks, and I swap biweekly goals with a dear friend and fellow writer. I jump at the chance to discuss my projects. When I get stressed or miss a deadline, I take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, and get a good night’s rest before waking up and starting over.
If you asked me to explain this miraculous turnaround, I wouldn’t be able to. There’s no clear formula I followed that I can point to and say that’s it, that’s what cured my writer’s block and whisked my dread away. There is, however, a ragged, limping path leading from one doubt to another until I reached the root of my One True Fear, a simple little question with a big and booming voice.
What if you have nothing to write?
* * * *
I write at the rate of an arthritic turtle. That five-page start to my really good essay took four whole weeks to eke out, and I’ve been hacking at this blog post for hours. The only writing I can churn out with speed and regularity is the kind I do in letters, and lately, even those have waned.
Being the opposite of prolific is one of my greatest insecurities, especially when someone mentions that David Eddings quote about how “a writer’s apprenticeship involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin.” The first time I heard that, I almost fainted, and then I stood up and almost fainted again. One million words is a lot of writing; a full day’s work for me clocks in at around three hundred, or, if I’m really lucky, a single page.
I used to beat myself up about this low productivity, but I don’t anymore. Instead, I love my arthritic turtle. I’m proud of her. I work with her all evening and go to bed smiling because I can’t wait to find out what else she has to say.
For ten years, I harassed my turtle, demanding to know why she wasn’t better, faster, stronger — healthy, like all the other turtles I knew. Every once in a while, this tough “love” tactic worked, and I walked away with a poem or an essay or the scattered draft of a book. But it never happened with regularity, and more often than not, my words dried up; the turtle pulled into her shell and left me with nothing to do but kick some dusty rocks.
Then the Question showed up, in all her scaly glory. What if you have nothing to write? she hissed. WHAT IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WRITE?
And that is when my arthritic turtle stood up, poked her head out of her shell, and, as calmly as the voice that told Liz Gilbert to go back to bed, said, “Honestly, who even cares?”