Epiphanies are not common, but I recently had two whoppers about the writing experience. One sidled up between the lines of Ann Patchett’s book, The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. The other coalesced while I listened to Jen Louden’s wonderful Shero’s Journey class. The one-two punch of these realizations is still settling in, but I couldn’t wait to share them.
Writing is a big deal. It carries a certain responsibility. Unlike speech, which hangs in the air for only a moment, the written word can long outlive its creator. The written word can be shared from person-to-person – pushing the writer’s thoughts and ideas far outside her immediate realm of influence. So, when we writers put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, we want to get it right … whatever “right” is.
And therein lies the problem.
Our vision for our work – our story, poem, or novel – can play a huge role in holding us back. Though it may be the thing that inspires us, it can also leave us feeling unworthy, incapable, small. The fear of failure that we talked about in the first post of this series attacks us from the outside with blatant negativity. No one wants to be rejected or ridiculed, but at least those demons are easily identified. They can be fought head on.
Fighting your vision is like fighting yourself. You cherish your opponent so much it hurts. The only feeling I can liken it to is the feeling of an expectant mother who is elated about the birth of her child, but at the same time paralyzed by a fear that she will not be a good mother.
In her book The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett writes about how she creates a novel in her head before ever writing a word. She describes this unwritten book as a butterfly companion that moves with her through her days:
This book, of which I have not yet written one word, is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.
The metaphor turns dark as Patchett explains what she must do to put the novel down on paper:
… I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it.
This is how our vision keeps us from writing our stories. It is more than a fear of being unable to capture the essence of the thing. It is a deep inner knowing that the process of writing a story will destroy that essence – the vision we have of it in our heads. Patchett says that the book she writes is “the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled.” She has betrayed her story. She has killed the thing so that she might see how it works and show it to others.
And here is where, for me, Jen Louden picks up the story.
In her Shero’s Journey class, Jen speaks about self-trust and self-betrayal. She talks about how we strive to achieve the one, but will always fall prey to the other. It’s human nature. We will make promises to ourselves, and we will break those promises. We will set goals and fall short. And that’s okay.
The important thing is to keep moving forward. Jen sees the cycle – which I believe applies to writing as well as to life – as making a promise, betraying yourself, forgiving yourself, beginning again. Most of us are probably already well versed in the promising and betraying parts of the process. (I know I am.) But how well do we even acknowledge the need for forgiveness and new beginnings?
If you have a beautiful story inside you, and you are afraid to commit it to paper or screen because you know to do so will mean maiming or outright killing your vision, remember this: you are the only one who can tell your story. You are the only one who has the vision to see its beauty. Without your sacrifice, the world will never be able to share in that beauty.
If a story were a living, breathing creature, I would never condone its murder for the purpose of letting others see it. But a story is not alive in that way. In fact, one might argue that a story must be killed in order to truly live. Think of your writing as the alchemy that transforms the idea of a story (which only you can enjoy) into a “living story” that can entertain, teach, and inspire others. The writing, then, is a kind of birth at least as much as it is a death. Without that transformation, the story will simply dissipate into nothingness. It will never make its way into the world as something of substance, a force that can move people to see the world and themselves in new ways. Without your sacrifice and labors, its spark will be extinguished, its light and color snuffed out.
Sure, its brilliance may be diminished in the process of being written. It may seem crippled to you – you who have seen it in all its original and pristine glory – but even crippled, it will have a new life and freedom. It will no longer be imprisoned inside your head. It will have the ability to go out into the world – touching minds and hearts, making a difference.
And, isn’t that why we write in the first place?
Tell me, is your vision holding you back? Are you willing to make the sacrifice to bring your story to life?
This is the fourth (and last!) post in a series about the causes of that fictitious condition known as writer’s block. In previous entries we talked about fear, finding the time to write and getting started. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone who feels they have suffered from this inability to put words down. I just believe that if we can uncover and face the root causes of this uniquely literary affliction, we can slay the writer’s block dragon and get back to the work at hand. Who’s with me?
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.
Image Credit: Curious Expeditions