This summer I enrolled in a creative non-fiction class at Loyola in New Orleans. The class was a workshop style and the 12 of us made for quite the diverse group. We varied considerably in age, sex, race and background. Together we could have easily graced the cover of a brochure for a city’s Parks Department or a Volunteer program of some sort. But we all wanted the same thing– to write, and for two months that’s what we did. Our teacher was a classic local New Orleanian who was an active writer in the city and taught in the MFA program. He always wore short sleeved Hawaiin shirts and had a pleasantly laid back approach to teaching. After the first class nerves and politeness wore off, we submerged into a chemistry all our own.
We spent the summer writing and reading and critiquing each others work. I knew there was a lot to learn in our short time together, but I loved more how enjoyable and interesting our sessions were. We all shared this passion, but it was more our willingness to show up every week, to put things out there we weren’t always comfortable with, and to give and receive critcism with honesty and humility. Because of our many differences, we had very engaged discussions, and it was so refreshing to hear the voices and opinions of people who were so different than me. It sounds cheesy, but having that diversity made such a difference. When I reflect on my college classes it strikes me how homogenous they were. I was mostly surrounded by people who looked the same as me and were after the same things. This was different. Better, I think. I remember after the first class feeling so grateful that I signed up and went for it. I noticed it advertised on a coffee shop wall. So often I feel an interest for an “extracurricular” like that and tell myself one day, but I never follow through. I was glad I did this time.
The truth is that “One Day” is always “Today” right? That’s probably a bumper sticker somewhere, I hope. But there really isn’t any other day than this one, which is why one day hardly ever comes. It’s already here!
At the end of our last day of class, someone asked our teacher if he had any final advice for us before we all parted ways. He thought for a moment and then gave a subdued, thoughtful response. “Everyone is always asking, ‘When can I call myself a writer?’ or ‘What makes someone a writer or not?’ It seems so obvious, but the simple truth is that a writer is anyone who actually just sits down and takes the time to write. Who works away at his desk and grinds it out, again and again and again. It really is about just making yourself write, day after day, which is very hard to do.” I remember thinking how simple but powerful an answer that was. So many people in the community, including me, ask that question, and so few people actually commit to the time and vulnerability and work it takes to create meaningful and honest writing. I think sometimes the idea of things is more appealing than the reality, which is always far less romantic.
I’ve been reflecting on his answer more recently as I’ve committed myself to a writing project that constantly challenges me. It boggles my mind that each morning when I sit down at the computer, I feel the same fear that I felt yesterday. I feel an uncertainty that’s totally unnerving. It makes me see and think of a thousand other things to do, besides writing my inside out. I see dust and think that I should dust. I realize a cluttered desk is no place to write so I clean that out first. I see paper and think I’ll make a list of other things to do, then cross each one off, then sit down and get to work. I check my email just to make sure there aren’t other things I could or should be doing. God forbid I enter the world of Facebook or Twitter or the black hole of the webosphere, never to be seen again. It’s crazy how much time I spend doing other things, with a fantasy in mind that once they’re complete, then I can write. It’s all a facade. It’s another One Day. There’s no perfect place to write, no ideal time, and no shortage of other things to do instead. I thought that once I did this long enough, I’d just wake up and start typing until nighttime and then do it again the next day. That I would overcome the fear once and for all. Not so.
Every day I feel a resistance to do the thing I love and deeply believe in. It’s strange and challenging and completely frustrating. It sounds like such a psychological cliche, but apparently this is a common defense mechanism that most people confront. If you don’t actually try and put stuff out there, you don’t run the risk of failure. Or rejection. In effect it’s just safer not to try. So we become skilled at finding ways not to. But it’s also boring and cowardly to give into it so I try and fight it all the time. Sometimes the fear wins and I don’t try that day. I alphabetize my medicine cabinet instead.
The flip side is, when I go too long without writing I feel like that kink in a hose running on high pressure. I get irritable and uneasy, like I’m going to POP at any moment. I can almost feel my insides stirring and expanding and the answer is always to let them out through words. It reminds me of something Marc Nepo wrote: “Talent is energy waiting to be released through an honest involvement in life.” True dat. The time before I write and the act of sitting down to write can be unpleasant and is usually really hard. But the feeling after I’ve written tells me that it’s what I’m supposed to do. I always feel better once I’ve done it, and sometimes if I’ve done it well, other people feel better too.
Whenever I watch really successful people on TV or listen to them speak, it always occurs to me that they got to where they are because at some point in their lives, they decided to try. And they too faced risk. But that’s always how big things begin. I used to think successful people were that way because fate had it in store for them. I thought they were chosen, as though success picked its people like teams in PE class. Now I realize truly successful people are all very different, but are triumphant in their aspirations because they’re true to their gifts and trust themselves enough to put it out there.They risk failure, but they get a chance at changing things, or going big, or living out their dreams. And how many of us are living out our dreams?! Even if they failed, they’d at least have tried, and there is success and respect in that alone. Some of my best stories and biggest revelations came from me failing first. Did you know I auditioned at Julliard? No, because I failed. But it’s also how I learned I wanted to write instead of act. Plus it makes a for a funny story now.
Our writing teacher told the class he had written two novels but so far no publishers had signed on to them yet. I was really impressed hearing that. I think actually having sat down and written a complete novel, start to finish, is a huge accomplishment. It takes such dedication and time and work, and he had written two. Even if they never get published, having two completed novels under your belt is awesome. Especially because writing is such a lonely thing– no one is really encouraging you or congratulating you until the work is finished. And you always run the risk that at the end of your hard work, it won’t be well received. I guess that’s the vulnerable part we all face any time we embark on an endeavor. But I don’t always think it’s about the finished product anyway. It’s more that we’ve dedicated ourselves completely to something, worked hard at it and saw it through to its end.
It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But by all means, try something.