I’ve just come home from the Antioch Writers’ Workshop Fall Retreat, where today I listened to writers talk about how important it is for them to find the time to do what makes them happy—moving words about on the page. I’ve been among folks who enjoyed the gift of time this weekend. They made significant progress with their projects. They had the benefit of being with folks of like mind, folks who understand the passion for the written word as well as the frustrations that are par for the course for anyone who makes writing a life choice.
One of the questions that came up during our final group discussion was about how to keep the momentum from this weekend retreat going. How, in other words, to keep doing what we all love, what we’ve all decided we can’t ever do without. So much competes for our time—jobs, families, other interests—and, too, we’re often troubled by our own doubts. We doubt the larger world cares much about what we do. We doubt our own talents. We doubt our preparation for the work ahead. Sometimes we get paralyzed with doubt or disappointment, and yet we find ourselves coming back to that blank page, the place we most feel at home.
As the fates would have it, the last day of the retreat was also the official pub date for my craft book, Telling Stories: The Craft of Narrative and the Writing Life. I wrote this book because I like to pay forward what so many fine teachers and writers taught me. I like to give what I can that might be helpful for someone struggling with the same things that threatened to make me give up so many times, and may do so again sometime in the future. I hope this contributes something useful to the question of how to keep writing through those times of doubt or paralysis. With that in mind, here’s the final section of my book:
These late winter mornings, I hear birdsong. I hear birdsong even though the temperatures have been in the single digits or below zero, even though a new snow storm sweeps through every few days. The birds don’t know how to doubt. The turning of the earth tells them that spring is closer each day.
It takes a similar faith to be a writer. We come to the page with an idea of what we’ll put there. We hold faith that something of value will emerge. We’re believers. Every one of us who works with words believes in the value of that work. We come back to the blank page time and time again because we’re convinced that this time we’ll get it right. This time we’ll succeed. This time the words on the page will do what we intend them to do.
Here are a few thoughts about how to keep facing that blank page:
1. Accept the fact that you will fail. Rarely will the thing you write measure up to the ideal that you first conceive.
2. Never let ego get in your way, neither excess nor lack thereof.
3. Humble yourself to the process. Somewhere there’s a writer more talented who is also failing every day.
4. Celebrate your talent. Out of all the people in the world, you’ve been given this gift. Don’t waste it.
5. Assert your right to do what you do best. Believe in yourself.
6. Be patient. Writing is your craft and it takes practice. It requires a lifelong apprenticeship.
7. Be protective of your time. In large, the world won’t understand when you retreat to your writing room. Trust that there are those of us who do. Trust that you belong to this community of writers.
8. Be willing to work. I’ll repeat the quote from Bill Bradley: “When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win.”
9. If you’re going to whine or wallow in self-pity, make short work of it because it’s all wasted energy. It’s energy that could be better directed to your craft.
10. I’ll remind you of what Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
What else are we to do, my friends, but the work that sustains us. Push on with hope, with faith, with the appreciation of what we love and how blessed we are to be able to face that blank page again and again, each day, even this one, so close to spring.