Writing for six

Dear Joy,

I've been running into two problems headfirst, whenever I sit down to write.

1. I'm scared to death about what other people think of me.

2. I feel like I can't justify the time I spend on writing.

Both are true of most writers in general, but I've desperately felt their effects these past two weeks, for one reason or another. I sit down to write, and suddenly, balancing the checkbook becomes the most pressing thing in the world; like, so help me, our budget will fall to shreds if I don't enter those last sixteen debit card purchases I racked up since payday. The laptop is thrown to the side, out comes the checkbook, and thirty minutes of writing time become thirty minutes of number crunching.

Or, I start to write. I scribble down a few ideas, start a draft, whatever. And then, into my head pops so-and-so, and I feel their keen disapproval. Oh, I tell myself. Better not go there. So I scrap everything, try again... and now there's someone else, telling me, You shouldn't write that. So I listen to them, delete it all, and I'm back to a blank page. Thirty minutes are up, I've made zero progress, but, thank goodness, have managed to keep all my imaginary critics happy.

I'm pretty sure I'll wrestle with both areas to some extent for the rest of my life. I hear most writers do. But every so often, I have to pick each thought up, like a soccer ball, and give it a good solid punt, over to somewhere where it'll take weeks to find its way back to me.

So, here's what I did to fix problems 1 and 2 -- my soccer punts, if you will. (I should, or shouldn't, mention that I was never very good at soccer. The analogy is breaking down all over the place.)

1. I'm scared to death of what people think of me.

It took me awhile to realize that, lately, I've been taking a lot of mental shots to the brain. It's like I'm standing in the middle of a circus ring, inside my head, and everyone I know is sitting in the stands encircling me. One by one, they're yelling out what they think about what I'm writing. It's like I'm getting hit by a bunch of rotten tomatoes, left and right, and I don't know how to stop it. The catch is, of course, that I'm the one creating this bizarre circus-ring scenario. I'm in control here, and I'm letting myself get creamed by everyone. How silly.

Here's how I fixed this. I opened up a blank document and typed a break-up letter to all my haters, real and (mostly) imagined. The letter is tucked safely away, and I feel so much better. Next, I wrote out a list of the only people who I really needed to think about when I wrote.

There were six people on the list.

Oh Joy. Do you have any idea how freeing it is to be writing for a total of six people? Most days, I'd skim back over my essay and pull this out, tweak this, edit that. Now, I'm looking it over, nodding my head, and clicking "publish." Careless, maybe, but also very freeing.

(Let me clarify: I care deeply about anyone who reads what I write. But, like any other creative form, writing is art, and art suffers when creativity is squashed. I've been squashing my own creativity, by trying to make everyone happy. One, it's impossible. And two, it's not my job.)

2. I feel like I can't justify the time I spend on writing.

I went straight to Anne Lamott for this one. (You own Bird by Bird, right?) Here's what she says:

Interviewers ask famous writers why they write, and it was (if I remember correctly) the poet John Ashbery who answered, "Because I want to." Flannery O'Connor answered, "Because I'm good at it," and when the occasional interviewer asks me, I quote them both. Then I add that other than writing, I am completely unemployable. But really, secretly, when I'm not being smart-alecky, it's because I want to and I'm good at it.

My friend Monica is studying to be a chef. I've never questioned her desire to pursue a culinary degree, because when you go over to her house and eat crème brulee out of warm ramekins, toasted with her very own kitchen torch, the only thing you're thinking is, "Shoot girl, you like this and you're good at it." 

I have a few friends who are teachers. Some work with kids, others with adults, but the common denominator among them? They engage their audience, grab your attention, and open your eyes to something you never saw before. I can find my way through a typed-out, photocopied, 15-minute Bible lesson for little kids on a Sunday morning, but the teachers I know bring Q-tips, paint, popsicle sticks, pom poms, and suddenly, all the little ones have a mini version of Noah's Ark that they put on their shelf at home, a tangible reminder of the truth they learned, over and over again. These people were made to teach. They love it, and they're good at it.

Take Alicen, my little sister, who dances like a dream, or Anna, my other sister, who manages to quickly connect with and love people at a deep and meaningful level. There's Alyssa, the cousin who is always and forever singing, and just came out with her first album. There's my mom, who opens her home to other people nearly every day with hospitality and grace, or my mother-in-law, who makes the most incredible, straight-from-the-garden salsa. (I recently learned that she doesn't like salsa herself; she just happily keeps making it for everyone else.) There's my husband, who can literally fix anything, just for the fun of it. I have fathers, brothers, brother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors -- I look at all of these people, doing the things they're good at, the things they love, and I breathe, feel a little lighter, and give myself permission to write.

I write, because I can string words together, and because I love it.

Here's the rest of Lamott's thought in Bird by Bird:

I always mention a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire in which, as I remember it, the Scottish runner, Eric Liddell, who is the hero, is walking along with his missionary sister on a  gorgeous heathery hillside in Scotland. She is nagging him to give up training for the Olympics and to get back to doing his missionary work at their church's mission in China. And he replies that he wants to go to China because he feels it is God's will for him, but that first he is going to train with all of his heart, because God also made him very, very fast.

So God made some of us fast in this area of working with words, and he gave us the gift of loving to read with the same kind of passion with which we love nature… [Some of my students] are really fast, really good with words, and some of them aren't really fast and don't write all that well, but they still love good writing, and they just want to write. And I say, "Hey! That is good enough for me. Come on down."

So sorry to deviate from the topic at hand. But I'm halfway through A Gentler God, and the going is slow... probably because I've been picking it up right before bed, when my brain should be shutting down, not waking up. That book is definitely not one for shutting down your brain. I read with pencil in hand, writing furiously in the margins, underlining, scratching in question marks and notes to self. I'm loving the whole process (but again with the wide-awake brain thing). 

You alluded to other life developments around here, and I say, YES and AMEN. I'll get to that (next time?). I just had to give myself permission to write about it first.

Love, Sherah

P.S. You cook meals for thirty people? You live with thirty people? I live with, and cook for, three other human beings, and we regularly eat pasta and pizza, over and over again. (Last week it was spaghetti for the win, 3 nights in a row. You know you wish you lived here.)