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As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.

And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.

There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.

Crap.

Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?

If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.

We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.

Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.

For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.

So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.

Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.

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I know some. Not all. Not yet.

I know the sound of your voice.

And the shape of your body as you stand.

I know why you smile. I know when.

I know you, fingertips and feet, and the gray in your unshaven face.

I know you in the morning, your eyes across the pillow.

I know your silences and your guilt and your mistakes;

your secrets and the mask you hold against the world.

I know what you do in this world—I know what you intend there,

although I don’t yet know why.

I know the passion you will not confess.

And your resistance and refusal and the generous you.

I know what will shatter your world,

and the assassin role that authors play.

 

To write, we must first love.

And hope that our plot obeys that love.

We must know the character down to the faintest breath,

and still hope, always, to be surprised.

To imagine completely, love helplessly, ruin willingly,

is a control, a luxury, that real life does not permit us.

Did we see these moments clearly and remember them well,

in the hyper focus alive behind the writer’s eye…

or did we  merely imagine them?

The adoration of  characters in a created world

elevates our private silences, and yet spoils us for so much else.

It sours us for the mundane, even as it exalts the fleeting and the ordinary.

And, in our most closely held honesty,

we know we have surrendered the truths of the beating-heart life

for something that will never keep us warm or hold our hands;

the friend that a solitary grownup can cherish,

perfect, outlandish, imaginary, and undeniably real.

 

The island me. Surrounded by not-there, not doing.

Waiting happens. It’s what writers go through—a kind of lying fallow to replenish ourselves; a waiting for the story to happen. I understand it. I don’t have to like it.

In the emotional stall that is the search for an agent (a combination of day-job demands  and inertia born of the outright, consuming, paralyzing fear of non-acceptance), one observes and one wonders:

Where is that line for defining what defines a writer? Where does our creative identity live? How do we find ourselves between the hairline cracks that lay between want-to-be, need-to-be and absolutely-is?

Those hairline cracks are fissures, sometimes. Chasms. Without the writing (or painting or sculpting or poetry writing or musicmaking or dancing or acting), what are we? Do we exist at all? Or are we just fooling ourselves?

A self-condemning stealthy fear waits to ambush us; tells us that a writer without readers is a failure; a mere wanna be. And that wanting is never, ever, ever going to be enough fuel to take us the whole way to is.

The need to write churns and prods, sometimes more, sometimes less…but is that need a legitimizing worthy of the claim I am a writer?

Perhaps the asking is a kind of answer. Recognition of need is, in itself, a confirmation of need, a pointing to a place in our natures that wants filling. But how do we get the rest of the way?

Is-a-writer is achievable only by the actual doing. And when one is gathering straw for the story’s brick, when one is waiting for the one agent, the one publisher, to see one’s voice as unique and worthy, that affirmation is a faint voice crying in an inner wilderness. We’re back to the uncrossable gap between is and want; to the self-fulfilling, self-defeating oroboros of wondering whether we’re truly what we’ve spend hours and years telling ourselves we are.

Why wait for that acknowledgement, that approval? The fact is, we do—no why about it. The most magnificent operative voice in the world wants an ear other than one’s own. We sing/dance/write for our own pleasure, but a creative effort without an audience is an effort half complete. We tell stories. Tell. Tell to someone. Without the someone, the story is just a magnifier of doubt. A self-indulgence. An unfulfilled and perhaps frivolous desire.

And that razor line? It’s the one that cuts through our hearts. Cuts our souls in two.

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