I’m still dipping into Dinty W. Moore’s The Mindful Writer when I have spare moments; Moore’s chapters are very short, and they make excellent springboards for contemplation. There’s a one-page mini-essay where he considers the common advice to “focus your writing on what makes you uncomfortable, explore the material that you’d really rather not explore.”
At first glance, that might seem incompatible with yesterday’s reflections about “being what you’ve become,” as Thomas Merton put it. Shouldn’t I focus on the things that come easily, that feel most natural to write about? The problem is that writing from a position of certainty isn’t going to offer you any surprises, isn’t going to teach you anything new about yourself. It’s just going to reinforce old patterns of thinking, and while you might hit upon some truths along the way, you’re also going to compound any past errors or misconceptions.
That doesn’t mean you have to devote yourself to subject matter that actively disturbs or repulses you. It does mean that you should look to topics that confuse you, story ideas that you can’t quite wrap your head around. Maybe you can’t understand why somebody you saw on the news would behave a certain way during a crisis—so you create a fictional version of that crisis, and then either try to get inside the head of someone responding to it in a way you can’t fathom right now, or you try to imagine how someone like you would deal with that situation you’ve never had to face.
Or maybe you’re a nonfiction writer, and you’re not quite sure why you’ve been dwelling on a certain topic for a while now, so you start to poke and prod, and you realize that this topic hits upon issues that you’ve been grappling with for years. Here’s an example: I became fascinated with a video game called The Witness last year, and I wanted to understand why I found it more compelling than other games that had crossed my path over the years, and the answer involves a particular intersection of neuroscience and computer programming and religious experience that I’m still piecing together, hoping to find the way to make it all as interesting to other readers as it has been to me.
As I slowly work through all that, there have been several moments that I could describe as “uncomfortable,” in the sense that I struggle to figure out how I’m ever going to turn the thoughts in my head into sentences that will actually convey meaningful information to another person. Maybe sometimes there’s an element of “Oh God, why did I ever think writing was something I could do with my life?”, because you never quite shake that, no matter how good you get at it, but it’s more common for the discomfort to be along the lines of “I know I can do this, why can’t I do this now? What am I not seeing?”
That’s when you have to, forgive the expression, lean into the material and find your breakthrough moment. It would be easy to quit, and God knows there are plenty of times when I’ve given in to distractions—although usually I try to convince myself that I’m still grappling with my confusion on a subconscious level, and sometimes that even turns out to be true.
Anyway, don’t be afraid of the confusion. It’s a signal that you’ve hit upon something worth sorting out, something that might just lead to a creative breakthrough.