Sitting Still & Being What You've Become

I recently took part in a master’s writing workshop, where I spent five hours, over the course of two days, talking with ten writers about their personal essays and memoir excerpts, sharing our thoughts on what each of them was doing really well and where each of them could refine their prose just a little bit further. As part of the deal, I also had to give a presentation before the entire class of fifty writers, which meant that I had to figure out what I could talk about for forty minutes or so in a relatively clear through-line.

“Welcome to the Writing Life” ended up being a series of thoughts, one flowing from the next, about why anybody would choose to be a writer, and the ways in which we have to change our lives to make it happen once we’ve made that choice. (I came up with the title nearly two months ago; if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably have called it “Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives,” just like this newsletter.)

The first thing I talked about was the why—how you can become a writer for the money or the fame, if you want to, but that’s actually a terrible decision, because there are so many easier ways to make a lot of money quickly, or to become famous quickly. So the reason I ultimately hit upon is that we choose to become writers because there’s something that we feel compelled to share with the rest of the world. It might be an insight gained from personal experience. It might be wisdom acquired through study and research. It might be a creative imagining of people and situations that don’t exist in our world, but can still tell us something about it. It could be an attempt to recreate an instance of perception and consciousness in a poem.

It could be a combination of some or all of those things.

In an ideal world, we’d know before we ever started writing what that thing we’re compelled to write is, and for some people it actually does work that way. For a lot of us, though, we start with a fuzzy notion of our “theme” (or “mission,” or “vision,” or what have you) that becomes clearer only after we’ve take the time to write around it. And so, I told my audience, we have to keep making the conscious decision to work toward better understanding our theme, so we’ll ultimately be able to express it as clearly as possible to the rest of the world.

That’s the end goal of every decision we make about writing, beginning with when we’re going to find the time to do it, up to putting the manuscript through one more draft because we know we can fix that one thing that’s still bugging us. It takes time, but it’s worth it, because it makes us better writers.

Then, a few days after coming home from the workshop, I found this Thomas Merton quotation in the book I was reading:

“Life consists in learning to live on one’s own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one’s own—be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.”

And that just seemed to sum up perfectly what I was striving to get across in my presentation. Writing is a way of learning who we are, of better understanding ourselves precisely in order to then be able to communicate with everyone else at a meaningful level. To do that, we need a certain amount of self-comfort—which is not the same thing as being free from anxiety. I don’t think any of us is ever completely free from the notion that we’re getting something wrong on the page, whether it’s that we’re not being clear enough or we’re being pathetically blatant and obvious. But we get comfortable enough to recognize that anxiety for what it is, look at what’s on the page (and, ideally, have someone else we can trust to look at it and speak honestly with us about it), then fix what’s wrong and trust in what’s right.

In the larger project of living one’s life that Merton was talking about, meditation and contemplative prayer played a major role in this developing self-awareness, and he believed not only that the mind “finds best when it stops seeking,” but that “the graduate level of learning is when one learns to sit still and be what one has become.”

Here, too, we can draw parallels with the writing process; in fact, it’s not any kind of stretch to see writing as a form of contemplation. Sometimes, when we start out, we find ourselves “writing to the theme,” and then becoming frustrated when what’s on the page doesn’t seem to fit what we want to say, but we’re not quite sure how to fix it so it will, because we’re still not quite really sure what we want to say. But the more we get these raw ideas out of our head, the easier it may become for us to recognize the fundamental concepts behind them, and we may find that they begin to emerge more clearly not because we’ve beat ourselves over the head trying to succeed, but because we’ve kept putting in the time.

We make a deliberate effort to open ourselves up to the writing process, and that turns out to mean paying attention to both the thoughts we’ve consciously shaped and the ones that emerge unbidden, testing them all, and building upon the ones that ring true. Over and over again, repeating as often as necessary. And that’s the writing life.

A reminder: This issue of the newsletter is going out to everybody, but the next few issues will be available only to paid subscribers. Look for the next all-access article on or around April 20. (And if you like what you’re reading, I hope you’ll consider subscribing for $5/month or $50/year.)

And, as always, if you’re looking for somebody to go over your work with an editorial eye, I offer a range of developmental editing services, covering either your first fifty pages or your entire manuscript.