The Idle Writer

I think the best piece of writing advice – besides embracing my own life – that I ever got was to be idle. Now, this is something I used to do naturally, back when I first started writing. I would pause before putting pen to paper, staring off into space, listening to myself and the world around me. This was not daydreaming – something I use far too often to escape. No, this was a sort of preparation. I would sink into my life, plucking at the strings and seeing what came up. Without fail, a beautiful first line or idea would swim up out of the murk and, once I put it to paper, I would keep going for hours, riffing off those first words in whatever rhythm they created when they came.

Sometimes it would take ten minutes for that line to come, sometimes an hour. It didn’t matter. I never strained toward it, just listened and waited. I didn’t try to force it; I knew it was there. I didn’t try to guess and jump in faster; I had faith that it would be worth waiting for.

As I grew older and started thinking of my writing as a career, things changed. I began to struggle with it, fighting for every line. I often would groan and moan about not getting my word count for the day. Ever notice yourself doing that because it seems like other writers expect it and you don’t want them to feel bad? Yeah. Quit that. I would guilt trip myself and try to force myself to write and the more I did that, the less I wrote. Lately, I’ve been trying to get back to that initial passion. I mean, back then, it was all so easy. I was hungry for the words. I didn’t care where they took me as long as they showed up. I had discovered that sentences had vibration and putting them together so that they rang out a certain way was my obsession. I filled whole notebooks with words, at least one a month. Once, I filled an entire Mead composition notebook in a single night. Yes. Two hundred pages, back to front, in my small ass writing, done in less than twenty-four hours. Did it matter if the writing was good or not? No. It was, but I didn’t care. Did it matter if I’d rewritten the same thing a thousand times? Nope. It wasn’t about the content, then. It was about the feeling the writing gave me and creating something beautiful. I didn’t worry about right or wrong. I didn’t think about what other people thought. I honestly could have cared less; I was drunk on creation. I was oblivious to how I got into ‘the zone’ because I pretty much never left it. My entire life was lived just for the sake of writing about it.

I look back at that time and I feel a sort of wistful longing. At some point, this became a job, it became something I am supposed to do, rather than something I want to do. I cannot really describe that loss as anything other than losing a lover; this person you know from the tips of your toes to the top of your head is suddenly a stranger, someone you see in the hallway, someone you talk to, but neither of you feels any connection anymore. When I lost my desire for writing, that is what if felt like. Not even like they were gone, but like they were still there without being there, like some couples who fall out of love but keep clinging to each other for lack of another plan.

So the question became, what was I to do? Run away? Find something else that woke me up inside and set me on fire? I tried lots of things. Rock climbing. Studying trees. Hiking. Traveling. Running. But everything had lost its flavor. Ever notice that there are things in your life that bring all the other things into focus? That was writing for me. It didn’t just give me life when I was writing. It was the reason I became present in the world and lived. I was constantly watching and listening, perfectly aware and fully in the present moment because it was all food for my writing and writing was life. I don’t remember when I stopped doing that. Certainly, it wasn’t a conscious decision to become absent. It just happened. I stopped trying to hear everything. I stopped thinking about how to describe the color of a flower or what the air smelled like next to a river. I was walking and talking and breathing, but I was numb inside.

So, the thing about going off to find yourself is that you have to take the good and the bad together. The good is that I still love writing. I still wish for it the way someone who climbs cliffs must wish for each ascent. It isn’t something you do for anyone else when it is your passion. You do it for you. That is the good; this is how I feel writing should be and this is what I want to recapture. The bad side, though, was that I’d gotten to a point where writing was my job. The stories I needed to write, the books I promised, the characters and plots all designed to be perfectly good, but failing to excite me, for some reason, all of this was for ‘the job’ side. I started thinking ‘when was the last time I just wrote to write’ and I had to face up to some pretty embarrassing truths.

I had stopped writing for me. I was just trying to finish the job, trying to get each story ready for reading and so busy worrying about the mechanics of making it ready for the public that I’d lost touch with the side of me that actually enjoyed writing. I was idle no longer, caught up on a clock that says ‘do your work or starve’. So I did the only thing that could create the space I needed to rework my thoughts. I got a different job.

I know, it sounds counter intuitive. How can taking on another job make more time for being a writer. Well, it can’t. But here is what it can do. It can pay my bills. It can make it possible to go to workshops and conventions. It can pay for classes. And, most importantly, it takes all those mundane worries about money and puts them to rest. So that, when I sit down and stare off into space, I can let the words come at their own pace and there is no pressure or stress. I know, I know. If you want to succeed, you have to make success your only option. But that only works if you aren’t actually chasing your dream. I’m not using this new job as an excuse not to write. I’m using it to give my writing room to grow. One day, I will live on my writing alone. But, until I find a way to separate my midwestern work ethic (push hard, push until it breaks, work to succeed) from the act of writing (open the window and sit quietly until something bubbles up), this is how it has to be. I am working so that I can become the idle writer again. And, well, when it comes to living so you can write, a job is a good way to get o

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