Weekend Edition – The Secret Truth About Writing

Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty, 2003

Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty, 2003

In the summer of 2007 my fourteen-year marriage was limping toward what would turn out to be a less-than-amicable divorce. I split my days between denial, mild panic attacks, and desperately trying to figure out what I would do to support myself and my three-year-old daughter. At the same time, my paternal grandmother passed away. After months of being in and out of rehab for various illnesses related to diabetes, she spent the end of her life in a hospice facility. I was there the day she died. We were not close, but she was the first family member I’d lost since I’d been grown-up enough to really understand what was happening. Only a few, brief hours before she passed, my Korean grandmother had gripped my hand in hers and told me earnestly that she was ready to take charge of her life now.

In the midst of all these big, traumatic events in my little world, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. The release of a shiny new piece of technology may not seem, at first glance, to have much to do with death and divorce; but that sleek device captured my imagination and quickly became the focus of a not entirely rational obsession.

With so many aspects of my life spinning out of control, the iPhone seemed to be an almost magical key to the life of order and control that I so desperately wanted.

··• )o( •··

On the day of the release, my daughter and I queued up outside the local Apple store along with hundreds of other shoppers who were eager to get their hands on this technological wonder. It took us three hours to gain entry into the bustling, white-on-white interior where Apple staff were delivering beautifully packaged new iPhones into the hands of customers who were as anxious and excited as expectant  parents.

Luckily for me, my mom and dad arrived to entertain my daughter just as she was beginning to lose patience with my constant admonitions about touching things and standing still. As my parents whisked her off to a less constrained environment, I finally took receipt of my own embossed box and the device that I was certain would give me all the tools I needed to organize, manage, and reinvent my life. I was ready, like my recently deceased grandmother, to take charge.

··• )o( •··

My ex-husband will tell you that I’m a control freak, though – from where I’m standing – my “managerial” tendencies pale in comparison to those of his current wife. I will admit, however, to having Type-A personality traits and maybe even a touch of OCD. These characteristics make me more susceptible than the average person to the allure of devices, software, and procedural practices that promise superhuman speed and efficiency. I have been known to swoon upon discovering a new piece of software or iPhone app. As a writer, I sometimes worry that my fascination with technology and systems might compromise my creative spark; but I’ve also come to accept that this is who I am.

As you’ve probably already guessed, that first iPhone did not give me the ability to effortlessly transform my life into a well-ordered, Zen-like existence. Neither did any of next three iPhones that I purchased.  Nevertheless, my love for Apple’s crown jewel remains undiminished. I’ve just had to learn to temper my expectations. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I have a more realistic sense of what an iPhone can and cannot do to improve my life.

··• )o( •··

I’m starting to learn a similar lesson about writing.

For all it’s creative and inspirational glory, writing is, at it’s core, an act of control. As writers, we create worlds, characters, and the plots that send our characters careening through our worlds on adventures of love and discovery, triumph and tragedy. We manipulate words into sentences and sentences into stories, controlling what our readers see, hear, smell, and feel. Writers are, in a sense, the gods of our own realities.

Writing is also a way to exert control over our own lives and emotions. The process of writing grounds us, offering solace and comfort through the ritual of regular practice and the relief of cathartic release. Writing gives us a set of powerful tools with which we can plumb the depths of our own feelings, attempt to make some sense of the world around us, and even reshape perceptions – ours and those of others.

Ultimately, writing is a bid not only for control of the here and now, but also for a certain kind of immortality. Like any artist, the writer seeks to create something that will live on after its creator is long gone. It’s not enough, apparently, to control the creation of alternate realities, our emotions, and perceptions. Writing also strives to control time itself by allowing the author’s voice to time travel across years or even centuries to whisper its story into the hearts and minds of new readers living in another era.

··• )o( •··

I don’t pass any judgments on the controlling nature of writing. It is neither good nor bad; it just is. Mostly, it makes me laugh to think how long it’s taken me to figure this truth out.

I’m also learning to laugh at the futility of any effort to control life. I’m finally old enough to realize that even if we do everything we’re supposed to, life always gets the last word. There are no guarantees. There are no silver bullets. There are, however, plenty of plot twists. Even the best laid plans can go awry, and even the perfectly planned story can turn out differently than you expected.

I haven’t yet fully grasped the nature of the relationship between life and writing. I don’t know if I ever will, and that’s okay. For now, I’m just grateful that writing is such an important part of my life. Though I can acknowledge that the control it gives me is only an illusion, I can’t think of a worthier or more lovely illusion to pursue.

A story can cast a spell, but writing is not a magic wand. Words have undeniable power, but they are only a reflection of life, not the real thing. If you can recognize the distinction and still write with joy and enthusiasm, you’re on the right track.

Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

37 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – The Secret Truth About Writing

  1. I have seen that each one of us has those things in our life that can help to distract. An iPhone or social media or writing. While writing is power of words, it can help someone only if they try to see it that way. Great post and thought provoking!

    • Thank you, Parul. Your comment touches on a further piece of the conversation that I thought about, but didn’t include in today’s post – something about how devices like iPhones and software and even certain practices can become crutches for our writing … they may even try to replace the writing in some ways. As you say – something to distract us. I haven’t thought that piece all the way through, but it’s certainly an interesting train of thought. TKS!

  2. What a wonderful post. I just very recently bought a used IPhone and they are so handy. As far as writing goes, I have learned to relax and enjoy it, shaking off the need to follow all the formalities and guidelines.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you liked it. : )

      iPhones ARE seriously handy. I couldn’t easily do without mine after all these years.

      As far as learning to relax and enjoy writing – I feel moments of that every once in a while, and it’s always a pleasure when I get to that point.

    • I’m glad you liked it, Jess. This post developed pretty organically, which is a little ironic considering the subject matter; but I liked working on it. Sometimes, the most important insights occur to us when we least expect them … catching us off guard even though we’re the author.

      Thanks for coming by!

    • Did you click the link to the post with the Livingston Taylor video. It’s hilarious. Sounds like your characters are as stubborn as Railroad Bill, but maybe you can still win the day. Taylor had to invent an earthquake, a tidal wave, and an alien attack, but he eventually got his way. 😉

      Good luck!

  3. Writing is absolutely a way to exert some control over my life, a way to try to make sense of it, and also to distract me from “real” life for awhile. All of these things.Thanks again for another illuminating post.

    • Thanks for letting me know that I’m not the only one, Tina. It was odd to write this post because I didn’t really “get” what I was writing about until I was almost all the way through the piece. It was kind of a real-time revelation as I wrote. I almost didn’t want to hit “publish” in case I was sounding crazy. 😉

      Anyway – always nice to see you. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

  4. This was very worth my time this evening and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I hadn’t blogged in a while and i found that, it is truly one of my “hiding” places. Because as you rightly said, when I am feeling most overwhelmed, that’s when I usually write and you might have just cracked the code for me as to why i do that which is because in the middle of the chaos i am feeling, writing is the only thing I can control; at least the ideas.

    I also especially like how you weaved three different potential stand-alone topics into one article. I hope I am able to do that sometime soon. My friends always say I am one track-minded which I guess is true because that’s one of the difficulties I have with writing, bringing different ideas together to form one fluid piece.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom which was so spot on.

    • I love cracking codes! 😉
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece and found it helpful. I believe that it’s important for us, as writers, to spend some time really figuring out why we do what we do. It can only help us clarify our purpose and make it easier for us to do the work we really want to do (even if we don’t yet know that’s the work we want to do).

      As for combining multiple ideas, I rely heavily on mind mapping to sort out my thoughts on any topic and see how they work together or flow. I wrote a little about it a while back: https://nhwn.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/mind-mapping-your-way-out-of-writers-block/

      Good luck!

  5. Thank you for your wisdom and personal insights. I believe the reason why I love Historical Fiction with such a passion is because the people can be pure imagination and live and love and grieve and die but the anchor to it all must be reality and fact. Fiction can have no bounds. It can take even the most balanced writer -out of control-. such is the joy of imagination BUT……history grabs reality and makes is relevant. I’m grateful that the Librarian and the Mayor are encouraging me to travel with both imagination and history from 1890 – 2015 . http://www.Marranga-Limga. com . I would value if someone could take a look and tell me that I can.

    • Interesting perspective, Faye. I love the combination of imagination and reality – of having flights of fancy grounded in something “real.” Even in the fantasy and speculative fiction genres, I find that the best stories are the ones that either have their own deeply thought out sense of reality (as in incredible world building where every detail is considered) or are based on some piece of our own reality (as in stories that spring from today’s headlines).

      I couldn’t get your link to work, but maybe you can repost it?

    • Thanks very much. Honestly, it came as something of a surprise to me, but I’m glad you can relate. 🙂

  6. Sharing your insights into what makes you write is so helpful, but getting to know you in little bits and pieces is the best part: Korean grandmother, nasty divorce and iphone dependent. Interesting! I don’t think any form of control comes into my writing, nor escapism, but maybe a feeling there are so many many untold people, places and stories in my own life and going back a few generations that I feel almost a … duty? to try to give some kind of shape to. For now, I struggle with finding the time, and blogging is sort of like a warm-up, or keeping in shape for the marathon.

    • Thanks so much, Bea, for being interested in my “little bits and pieces.” 🙂

      I can relate to your feeling of duty to tell stories. I have often felt a mixture of elation and overwhelm when sitting, for instance, in a sidewalk cafe and thinking about how each person walking by has not just one story, but hundreds or thousands of stories in his or her life … and those stories are connected to hundreds of other people who also have their own stories and so on and on and on. It’s said that the world is made of stories, and I believe that to be true on many levels.

      Also – yes! – blogging is like a writing “warm-up.” It’s like the training you do to keep you in shape for the longer works in your queue. Great simile! 🙂

  7. An exceptionally well thought out piece. Introspective in nature, I find myself thinking we share similar qualities. Although not a type A person (I tend to score high in the I on the DISC), the OCD and controlling aspects you write about are strong for me. Writing becomes that place where I can exert that control, but oddly, I find myself wanting not to, but allowing the story to become whatever it wants to become (i.e. I hate outlining and planning… totes a pantster). Oh, and I’m an Android kind of guy. 😀

    • You bring up a really interesting point of tension. I published this piece without giving myself the option to rethink it or go winging off on tangents, but the point you make is one I definitely want to explore. Though I happen to love planning and outlining and researching (though I am fully aware that those activities are, in part, Resistance), I also crave the experience of creative “flow” – of having the story take over and evolve, seemingly on its own and in unexpected directions. It’s such an interesting play of forces.

      Thanks for articulating it.

      PS – Nothing against Android. I just happened to fall for the iPhone first, and I tend to be loyal to my OS. 😉

  8. I like to think of writing as being very similar to riding one of the worms of Dune or of jumping bareback onto a horse that isn’t entirely certain they want to keep you there.

    You sit on top of raw power and try to figure out how to harness it and make it go where you want, how you want and when you want it to.

    Not always easy but so much fun.

  9. Muy bueno. Cuando era niña solía decir que “iba a ser escritora”. No tengo editado ningún libro pero trabajo con la palabra. Con el tiempo entendí que “ser escritor” no se trata de pagar tus cuentas, aunque es un aspecto importante de tu vida adulta, sino más bien de algo más simple y cotidiano como no poder vivir sin escribirlo todo (o casi).

    Saludos y gracias por inspirar con tus palabras

  10. Pingback: Writer’s Weekend Edition – A Crisis of [Writing] Faith | Live to Write – Write to Live

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