Last week, I received an email from a long-time writing partner, author Jeff Widmer. (You can check out his books on this affiliate-linked Amazon Author page.) Jeff and I—along with Jean, George, and Lynn—met twice monthly for several years, each of us slogging through our own novels, bit by bit, word by word. The group was a great way to interact with other writers, receive thoughtful feedback, and it provided external accountability for those times when the internal drive to keep moving forward on a seemingly never-ending path was lacking.
When I made the decision to re-write (and actually finish) a long-dormant novel, this group of writers was there to encourage and help me reach that glorious final page where I wrote, quite dramatically: The End. Rewriting and actually FINISHING that book was a major milestone for me, and having a group of writers to share that with was important. (If you haven’t read the novel in question, In Loco Parentis, you can find out more about it, here.)
Jeff’s email asked me to detail some of the hows and whys behind a short story I wrote a decade or so ago. The story, Dog Years, was published in Ruminate magazine and later included in my short story collection, The Blues and the Oranges. I attempted to recall the genesis and evolution of that particular story, and was reminded of the way fiction seems to mysteriously take shape out of a mishmash of lived experience, the observed world, and pure imagination. Retelling the HOW of Dog Years reminded me just how beautifully frustrating it can be to make a work of art. And, it reminded me how devoid of that feeling my personal writing life has been over the last few years.
Words Get in the Way
The pandemic era ended what had been a very strong couple of years for my writing life. Prior to March of 2020, I had completely re-written my first novel, and refined it to the point of being ready for public consumption, and I had worked with the writing group to get feedback on my next novel, I Should Love You Less. That book had reached the messy middle when the pandemic made it so our group had to suspend meeting in person. And then, life happened. Illnesses, deaths of loved ones (not Covid related), and relocations (of myself and one other member) to far away lands, and suddenly, the writing group-as-motivation was no more.
I published two books in the next year, and launched a redesign of my website, and tried to find ways to recover from losing my day job AND all of my teaching and coaching business. When I moved from Florida to Kentucky, I knew it would take some time to reestablish things, and that I would have to focus on business building more than artistic expression. That was just part of the “game.”
So, it wasn’t a big surprise when I got to the end of 2021—a year of relocation, major life changes, and a total reorienting of the society at large—with ZERO new words written for my novel. (I tried, a couple of times, to restart the process. Those attempts didn’t take.)
In December, I was actually pretty depressed by that realization. The Covid response had stolen a lot from me, but it had also given me more time. But I hadn’t capitalized on it, in my estimation, and that was a bummer. And as life slowly drifted towards almost-normal, I’d taken on new projects and added a lot of activity to my personal and professional life, but I hadn’t made any progress on the book.
As 2021 slipped into 2022, I realized something important: My perspective was that I hadn’t “done any writing” in the previous year. Turns out, I’d written close to two novels worth, it just wasn’t writing that advanced the novel I want to write.
I worked with several ghost-writing clients, and wrote around 125,000 words for their books. I also began a project I’ve been considering for a couple years, which had me writing another 60,000 words of “behind the scenes” writing. (This is what I’m calling the deep dive writing, or expressive writing, in which I am reviewing my own life and using my writing time to express my ongoing self-evaluation and improvement, and deal with internal issues through writing.) Add to that the Morning Pages writing four to six times a week, and the idea that I “hadn’t written” in the previous year was revealed as a trick of perspective, rather than reality.
The problem was, I wasn’t writing the thing I thought I needed to be writing. I Should Love You Less is a project I started somewhere around 2006. It didn’t start as a novel, and I’ve debated exactly WHAT this story is (one book, multiple books) and HOW to tell it (chronologically vs interwoven timelines, first- or third-person) so much that I’ve written more words ABOUT the story than I have OF the story at times. (Which is saying a lot because at the half-way point, this story is as large as many commercial novels.)
It was good to have a perspective correction: It wasn’t that I haven’t been writing, it’s that what I’ve been writing isn’t, ultimately, what I most want to write.
Artistic Vision vs Financial Reality
This isn’t a new problem. Most writers, painters, musicians, sculptors, photographers, and artists of all sorts are in a constant push-pull of artistic goals and the reality of living this human life. (It isn’t just financial reality. It is the balance of family life, social life, community, and a whole host of outside factors that either alter our ideal “creative flow” or obliterate it altogether.) Like the plumber whose spouse complains of the leaky pipes at home, the working writer often expends their writing energy on the projects of others, or on the “behind the scenes” writing that is, at best, tangentially related to actual artistic creativity. And the which-is-what of the whole thing can be pretty blurry.
This blog post, for example, is both vitally import to “platform building” and also has nothing to do, really, with me writing the next chapter of I Should Love You Less. Is this a valid use of my time?
It’s a good question, and one I continue to wrestle with. I am convinced that part of my own personal “Why” in life—what it is that energizes me and gives me a sense of purpose and meaning—is teaching and sharing about writing, helping others pursue their artistic and creative pursuits, and facilitating the telling of stories in any number of ways. Writing to answer’s Jeff’s inquiry about Dog Years illustrated just how deep the animating force of tapping into my WHY can be: In twenty minutes, I dashed off a 1,200 word response about the inspiration and formation of the story. Some days, I feel lucky to squeak out 1,500 words on a project, and I’d almost matched that in half an hour.
Energy is abundant when the activity is rooted in the deep resonance of the WHY. The words I wrote last year were important, even if they weren’t the novel I want to write. The evidence is in the mere doing of the work.
The Mystery of the Creative Life
The same morning I was responding to Jeff’s email, I was reading from Christian Wiman’s book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. A line that stood out to me that morning is as follows: “There is a sense in which all art arises out of injury or absence, out of the artist’s sense that there is something missing in him, something awry or disturbed.”
I added, in the margins of the book, “Or, sometimes, it is simply something working itself out from within. It isn’t just injury or absence, but also an attempt to present some icon of an indefinable now, to affirm an indescribable mystery that evades capture, but is nonetheless real.”
Life. Consciousness. Creation itself. It is all mystery. And living this life, we are all filled with uncertainty and, often, an inability to put words to the things we experience. Writing, for me, is the physical manifestation of the internal, and while it is always an inadequate representation of the whole, it does give glimpses to what could never be fully written or revealed. Other artists may utilize some other means—the non-verbal expression of a painting or photograph, for example—but a good artist is still attempting to work out something that defies description.
There was another line in the Wiman book, two pages earlier: “…the ingredient of great poetry which most young poets lack is either life experience or the sense of self needed to fully inhabit their experience…”
The convergence of Jeff’s email and Wiman’s book reminded me that not only is ghost writing and helping other people tell their stories part of my WHY, my own inner work—the deep dive, behind the scenes, expressive writing I’ve been undertaking as part of my own program of self-examination and growth—is crucial to my ongoing artistic development. Life experience can be a great grist for the fiction mill, but developing the sense of self and deepening my own understanding of the meaning and purpose of my work is equally important. Searching for my WHY, and learning to recognize it in its many forms, is an ongoing task. But nothing is as invigorating as pursing meaningful work.
So much of what a writer does looks like inactivity. So much of what I’ve done in the last two years isn’t something easily quantified. Yet, it has been feeding the furnace within, and—hopefully—preparing me for the next phases of my creative and entrepreneurial path.