I’m always curious about what the antidote is to those times when we are unable to write, when it seems the words and ideas have dried up, when it’s better to binge-watch “Homeland” or “Outlander” or “The Good Wife.” I recently came upon one of these “dry” spells, where I had no motivation at all to go to the computer, though the “shoulds” plagued me every day. I should work on the three chapters I still need to edit, and start chunking out four chapters for a book on creativity and silence. I’ve started another memoir, and where is that project anyway? I must be fooling myself. Me, a writer? Where? When?
There are blog posts to write, and ideas for another workshop. but…I fast forward to season 4 of Downton Abbey as I get ready for season 5, as always enjoying the costumes and accents and English customs—and tea in cute cups for every stressful occasion. I tell myself I’m resting from having been sick—it’s true I was sick, but really, it’s time to get back to work. I find books that I think will stimulate my mind so I can write again, flip through some pages, and put them back on the shelf while I make more tea. Then it’s time for another “Homeland” episode in the new season! I’m mesmerized by the characters and plot twists, even though I already know what happens. Anything to sit on the couch away from the computer. My mind is mush.
Perhaps it’s because it’s nearly Christmas, or because of the antibiotics I was taking, I tell myself. But I started to worry about and then mourn my lost writing self. Facebook posts from other writers show an intense amount of activity, non-stop writing, it seems. Some people post that they write six hours a day, every day. Sigh.
Then I took the book off the bookshelf that has always lifted me away from such moments in the past, though I didn’t think anything could do it this time: If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. I have quoted her in many articles and in my books, and I can tell you how uplifting her words are and how we should heed them: that we are all amazing creative creatures, that every one of us has something important to say and it’s imperative that we say it. But just as you can play that magical game where you open a book and put your finger on a sentence and notice how it fits for you right then, this book offered me something I know but forgot that I know: We need to write out of love.
Ueland’s example is Van Gogh—how he speaks in his letters to his brother of drawing a scene outside his window with a tree and a star and a luminous sky. He drew it because he loved it. She offers other quotes from his letters about painting what he loves, being with what is real and meaningful to him, sinking his presence into this love.
…”the creative impulse of Van Gogh, a great genius, was simply loving what he saw and then showing off, but out of generosity….I understand that writing is this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. That writing is not a performance but a generosity.”
And then I get it—I have been a victim of the “shoulds,” me, who “should” know better. How many people do I support to do their writing—dozens—but finding my way back to my own writing? Difficult. Yet this fallow period seems a useful experience because I know that as long as I’m struggling with the same things that my students struggle with, I will be freshly tuned into the same challenges that are hard for them. As long as I’m writing essays to try out a new voice or form (when I’m able to write), or trying to come out of a bleak writing period like now, I’m close emotionally to all that goes on as we write, as we try to shape worlds from words. I’m inside the struggle, just like they are.
After I read the quote about writing from love, I took a long walk with the idea of writing from love tingling in my mind. I realized as I walked that the burden of “I should write today” was clogging up my creative process. Very gently I began to think about what I loved, and why I write about creativity and passion and memoir, and what it does for me to carry that torch. After my walk, on the way home in the car, another bit of synchronicity happened: on NPR Armistad Maupin was interviewing Alan Cumming about his book Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir.
I recognized him from his role in “The Good Wife,” and as the host of Masterpiece Theatre. In the interview with Maupin, he spoke about the journey that his family took as part of a program on genealogy. The producers research the family’s past and come up with surprises that are presented on the air without previous warning. His memoir goes into that experience/shock along with the story of his own personal past. His book tells the tales of his childhood, which include heart stopping details about the physical and mental abuse by his father.
He told the audience how empowering it was to take the stories and memories that have always been a secret and bring them out into the open. Most of the time we find ourselves protecting the abusers and carrying the shame ourselves for what happened, but telling our truth frees us from the trap. He acknowledged it was difficult for him and his family to be so exposed in the program about their past, and then in the memoir, but now he, his mother and brother are free from protecting the father. They have healed and moved on.
So between Brenda Ueland’s wisdom and Alan Cumming’s confessions, I returned to myself and my writing, and the reasons that I do what I do—out of the love of helping others heal and my belief that the truth does indeed set us free. In the middle of our struggles with voice and permission and truth, sometimes we need to lay low, to muse and to dream, and not give ourselves too hard a time about it. We need to look for the clues that can pull us out again into the light. We need to circle back to doing what we must do—because we love it and it gives our lives meaning.
In writing this, I came back to myself.
Linda Joy, thank you for this brave post about shadows, sunlight and love. I’m so glad you are feeling better on both planes.
The universe is a apparently sending a lot of us a similar experience and message. I’ve been reading and solving puzzles while you’ve opted for video distraction, but it’s all the same. I’ve come to a similar conclusion: write what makes you happy. Love is, in my experience, closely aligned with happiness, light, truth — all that good stuff. It’s a complex, joyful package.
Getting bogged in The Land of Should may be a natural trap for serious memoirists: we “should” be able to make articulate sense of our lives. We “should” figure out how to make a seemingly drab, ordinary life sparkle like diamonds, magnetizing the masses. We “should” be brave and clever enough to publicly bare our souls while respecting the privacy of others. We “should” bee generous enough to share our tough moments and traumas to encourage and inspire others.
Well, hey! If memoir is too tough today, let’s write a poem, an ode to happiness. Maybe a fairy tale. Maybe a steamy flash romance with happily ever after at the end. Let’s write life as we want it to be, not as it was. Let’s restory ourselves and the world.
Besides Brenda Euland’s book, I often turn to Take Joy by Jane Yoland for inspiration.
Thanks so much, Sharon. You have here even a longer list of “shoulds” that I think get in our way as writers, and especially memoir writers. I agree, that writing something else, what I call “non-productive” writing–which means that we aren’t trying to “do” anything with it, is a doorway back into our creativity. Thank you as well for the suggestion for another inspiring book! I will look it up. I do plan to enjoy fully the movies that I like, though, without guilt. I tell myself I’m noticing the plot points! Happy Holidays and refreshment to you and your inner creator.
Yes, I love Euland’s book. I had it on cassette tape and listened to it many times driving to work. It lifted me into better writing spirits and made me want to turn the car around and get home to write. “On Writing” by Stephen King, “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg have the same power to pull me from a writing slump. At the moment I have Writing Down the Bones on CD in my car’s CD player. On my commute these inspiring words remind me of my true vocation and why I am so eager to retire!
Thanks Linda Joy for sharing your thoughts and reminding us that all writers experience highs and lows and there is hope at the end of the dark tunnel.
Hi Renee, thank you for your list of books that inspire you and CDs as well. No matter where we are in our writing journey, we need the companionship and encouragement from others. Glad you are getting that, and that it’s making a difference in your writing life!
This is a wonderful post, thank you! I needed it right now. Brenda Ueland’s book helped me get started writing several years ago, and I have read through Van Gogh’s letters several times,
Thank you Valorie for your response–glad to know you are one of Brenda Ueland’s fans–she is always there for us! And Van Gogh–the fact that he suffered every day of his life and used his art to life himself from the shadows can inspire all of us as we continue to enjoy his work. I have several posters of his art in my house so I can enter into the paintings at any time and find refuge. I’m going to look up your website!