“You write like you’re squeezing toothpaste from an empty tube.”
These haunting words came from a college professor who provided me with no remedy for my condition.
Or if he did, I didn’t listen.
But it was true. I was a painfully slow writer who labored over every letter and word I wrote.
And I didn’t recognize that this behavior would keep productivity, success, and deep satisfaction out of my reach well into the twenty-first century. It was one of those insanity-is-doing-the-same-thing-over-and–over-yet-expecting-different-results kind of things.
Oh, was it ever true. And for the next thirty years it would remain true.
I was one of those writers who could only write when the muse struck. Only when the words were suddenly there or a brilliant idea appeared like manna from the gods, with no forewarning, no fanfare, and alas, taking its leave just as mysteriously, and with no promise of a return.
I was at the whim of this unreliable influence. This… this stupid muse thing/person/being/presence.
It’s just that I knew I had a voice inside me that was itching to come to the surface and spill out all over the place. I knew that I “should be” writing in order to benefit my lucky friends, society, the world, the universe, whoever and whatever. The muse herself. But ultimately, just because.
So I kept fancying myself a writer even though I didn’t have a habit of actually writing much. This was ridiculous, obviously.
I wasn’t getting much done but figured I was like Jane Austen and was to be a writer of quality, not necessarily quantity.
I didn’t set out to write.
I went to college in pursuit of a degree in architecture. When asked what I wanted to major in, I innocently thought that it was the same question as what did I want to be when I grew up? I wanted to be a fashion designer or an artist.
I was told I needed to do something useful.
Architecture was chosen. After all, I was acing my high school drafting class, so that was evidence enough of what I should spend the rest of my life doing.
It was clear when I showed up to my first day of college not knowing who Frank Lloyd Wright was that maybe I was unprepared.
After a valiant battle with the calculus requirement came all the wonderful electives I was allowed.
I actually loved architecture, as it turned out. And I also took art classes and quite a few literature and writing classes. And true to form, I made every bit of it very hard on myself by being a perfectionist and so self-conscious that it’s a wonder I managed to produce a thing.
This was a poor approach but I was dedicated to it.
I just knew I could write. But I was paralyzed with the recognition that what was appearing on the page was not very good after all and did not in the least display my inner brilliance.
I continued to piddle around, but great—or fast—or just not painfully slow writing eluded me.
How could it not?
I still couldn’t see that no one is obliged to spew forth perfect prose simply upon spelling words on the page, that every other good writer out there most often spews forth something far less than elegant or even literate first thing.
I steadfastly refused to see that only with dogged practice like an honest-to-goodness athlete or artist does a writer get to where first drafts and second drafts and even third and fourth ones are at least pretty good.
Me and my toothpaste tube, we just kept on keeping on.
I gotta hand it to the internet because when I learned to type and subsequently use the internet at forty (slow learners club!) and found myself lollygagging around getting into discussions with perfect strangers, I began to see that I was writing and that it wasn’t that big a deal.
I became quite the researcher and sought advice hither and yon, when one day someone recommended writing quickly and without editing along the way, just writing to get the words out of my head, out of my body, out of the bottled-up dark places of heartache and stomach acid and into the light of day.
This was like the time I took my first swig of superior moonshine. I said, “Ohhhhhhhhhhh, I get it.”
Even though I’d been telling myself that thirty years ago a mean ol’ professor left me with no direction whatsoever after dropping that toothpaste comment on me, I’m betting that he gave me some early-80s version of Just Do It, because that’s the deal with writing. It can’t be any other way. Not on a regular basis, anyway. Unless your name is Moses or King Solomon or something.
Like I said, slow learners club.
I started doing it—writing without the deliberation, the suffering, and all the wailing and the gnashing of teeth that I had come to (not) look forward to.
This free-n-easy new way of writing was like me in a fast car on a wide-open road.
I began to rack up the word counts. I began to have fun, good lord!
I began to experience an abundance of ideas instead of keeping a lid on everything until I could find the right word or decide between an em dash and a semi-colon. I began to feel like a writer and not a poser. My daughter started saying, “My mom’s writing a book” and puffing up when her friends were impressed.
But I continued to be naïve.
Turned out that it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns now that I was Jane Austen’s equal.
I was surrounded with writing that I was afraid to look at after my considerable pride turned to horror when I first beheld what miracles I had fallen short of.
I saw that, in a blinders-on state of focus, I do not instinctively choose correctly between “sole” and “soul” or between “heel” and “heal” and that I am fully capable of choosing the wrong their/there/they’re or too/two/to.
Regrettably, this messy phase of the process cannot be avoided.
When someone asks how it’s going, I’m tempted to say, “Oh, I’ve been so busy” (load of crap alert), when I might more truthfully say, “I’m afraid to look at my writing because it is mortifying and I should just return my computer to the store.”
The reality check part can be a downer.
When I’m writing I feel like a million bucks.
And when I’m not writing, I feel like negative-a-million bucks. I’m depressed, I eat too much, I want to day-drink, I wander the house without at least having a dust rag in my hand.
Because the answer to everything ever is to write.
But often when I go back and read what I’ve written I feel like my soul has been hauled away for scientific research. I’m aimless, my eyes are hollow, I get up and down from my desk a lot.
It’s probably not even as bad as I think, such is the nature of perfectionism and crippling self-consciousness, but right then I’m just so stunned what I’ve written is not as perfect as it felt at the time of writing it.
Some things are irredeemable. A lot of things are, actually. I suppose that’s the cost of putting pen to paper. Or fingers to the keyboard, of course. Some of it really is worthless. Or at least totally blah and therefore just as bad as worthless.
But if I detect a spark instead of pure blah or straight-up b.s., I roll up my sleeves and face the damage I’ve done. And if I can manage to mud-wrestle the hideous pile of crap sentences into decent shape, I consider myself triumphant.
I am the victor.
My spirits lift, the sun shines once more, bluebirds circle me singing.
And lo, I have indeed wrought a hundred pages of a little bit of miracle some thirty years later.
So there you go, shiny friend, the sort of anguish that sometimes/often/usually goes into writing, blog posts included sometimes, and all the rest.
You can imagine, though, that when the magic happens and something hits the page somehow near-perfect, well… that really is the stuff of miracles. It’s just so damned hard to count on that, though—miracles more often kind of sneak up on you.
But hey, I’ll take slow cooker miracles, too.
I mean, I may be a slow learner, but no matter, I’ve got a helluva lot of words under my belt at this point.
Thanks for hanging around and reading—I appreciate you.
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