I took Monday off work specifically to write, and I was excited about it, as many days – weeks, if I’m honest – had passed since I had devoted time to writing. Sunday was dedicated to getting all my chores done so I could focus on writing. My work shirts were clean, ironed, and neatly hung in the closet. The dishes were washed, and the kitchen counters wiped clean. The detritus of domestic life was put away (or thrown away), the carpet was vacuumed, and the proverbial slate was clean and ready for fresh chalk to be applied. I was positively giddy about the idea of spending a whole day filling the screen of my laptop with my stories. The reality of spending a whole day writing, however, was less joy-inducing. In fact, it sucked.
As I sat at my desk – surrounded by my notebooks filled with scrawled words, phrases, and anecdotes ready to be crafted into finished works of written art – I felt anxious and unable to begin. To be clear, it wasn’t a case of writer’s block. My mind was brimming with anecdotes and ideas ready to be brought to life on paper, but I dreaded the work. Let me assure you, it is work. Hard work. There are few things as satisfying as a finished bit of writing, whether a well-executed blog post or a complete book, but the process, for me, is excruciating.
There are times when I write that I get in “the zone” and crank about hundreds of words without breaking a sweat, but those are rare times. Most often when I write, my internal editor is watching my every keystroke and pointing out that I will have to clean up that sentence, choose a different word, come up with a better metaphor, probably delete that last paragraph, and add more descriptive details (Oh, Lord, how I hate writing descriptive details). My internal editor is a colossal pain in the butt, and he loves to remind me about what Rilke said.
Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet and novelist who wrote Letters to a Young Poet, which is exactly what it sounds like. He wrote the letters to a young man who asked for advice about whether to pursue a career in writing. I read it more than twenty years ago, and, while I had no illusions of making a career out of writing, I found it inspiring. Inspiring and devastating. The devastating part was the one line from the book I have ruminated over ever since I first read it:
“Ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?”
For the past twenty years, I’ve been dodging the question, especially on quiet nights. But on Monday, my internal editor wouldn’t shut up about it. It was around 2 p.m. when I’d had enough and finally answered. Must I write? Yes, I must. Despite how frustrating, stressful, and crazy-making it can be, I must write. That’s why I keep doing it, for crying out loud!
I love a good epiphany. In one shining moment of clarity, I realized that I should stop expecting the act of writing to be all puppies, flowers, and rainbows. It’s satisfying, but it’s not relaxing. Bringing ideas to life through an artistic medium is challenging, demanding work.
The best part of this particular epiphany, though, was that it came in two parts. Just as I realized writing is full of misery, I realized chores – all that ironing, dish washing, counter cleaning, and vacuuming – is deeply relaxing. Crazy, right?
As a kid, I thought of chores as pure mindless drudgery. Now, I understand that chores are my escape from the toil of creation. There is no editor second-guessing every choice; it’s just me and the tasks to be done. Sweet freedom.
The next time I sit at my desk to write, I know I’ll still dread the battle with my editor, but when that inner voice gets to be too much to take, I will step away from the desk and mow the lawn or wash the car and be renewed. And then I will go back to my desk, or the couch, face the laptop write, because I must.
I think I’ll go do some laundry.