Because the way I know myself is through the written word. The ways in which I am able to access any understanding of what makes me tick, how I see the world around me, what I feel, what I know, is through the daily practice of grappling with the page. The grappling itself is the point. Ideally something comes of that grappling, eventually. Every story, novel, essay, memoir begins with that dive, that free fall, that willingness to not know. We begin with the barest of ideas, a flickering image, a phrase, just outside our grasp, and we begin to try to capture it by sitting with the page and seeing what emerges. Dani Shapiro, On the In Between
I haven’t been able to forget Shapiro’s words since I read them yesterday morning, and in fact have returned to her blog several times today to savor them once again. She’s writing about the time in between completing a book and starting the next project, the time when the writer’s mind is fallow. She worries during this time period, worries that her imagination has left her, that no good ideas will come. She writes “this between-books limbo is, for me, like a long, slow leaching of color from the world. A steady decline of mood and connection to the universe until one day I wake up and hardly know who I am.”
It’s true for most writers (and I count myself among this number) that we do our best thinking on the page. I’ve recently returned to the practice of morning pages, three pages of stream-of-consciousness style journaling, a habit I had been seriously committed to for several years but one that fell by the wayside during a particularly busy time in my life and never got picked up again.
Since I resumed this practice, I realized that taking time to write those three pages is as valuable for me as eating three meals a day, or getting seven hours of sleep, or taking my morning walk. I’ve written through some things that were bothering me and discovered other things I didn’t even realize were going on in my head.
And it’s true that the act of sitting down and starting to write – something, anything – often helps me over the hump when I’ve procrastinated on an outside writing assignment, blog post, or review.
But where Shapiro finds the “in between” to be a soul deadening place, I wonder if it sometimes is more fertile than she – or the rest of us occasionally fallow writers – realize. I wonder if, during those times when when we’re not actively writing but going about the business of life full throttle, when we’re reading and conversing and driving, when we’re sitting in meditation or performing sun salutations, when we’re dicing onions or measuring coffee out in spoons, I wonder if we are really gestating the ideas and emotions that will work their way onto the page.
Shapiro says No. For her the real gestation happens on the page when her fingers begin to dance along the keys, the pen scrawl across the paper.
Lately I’ve been thinking about mindfulness, about paying closer attention to the world around me, getting my head out of the internet and television and even books and taking more time to be quietly thoughtful. I think some of that has to happen before we can even begin to put words to the page. And because for most of us daily life (or the things that Virginia Woolf called “non being- the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner”) tugs at us so insistently, it’s easy to think that productive mindfulness could not occur in the midst of this banal state.
But with a subtle shift of perspective, I think writers have the power to elevate themselves beyond the state of mundanity, have the creativity and depth of emotion to see past the “cotton wool” of day-to-day living and find instead the moments of gold, the moments that could bring those first tiny seeds set to grow into something larger, something that will indeed sprout to life on the page. With age, I have come to appreciate the beauty and sacredness in my daily routine, in preparing and partaking of meals, in reading books and conversing with friends, in porch sitting and dog walking.
I’ve learned to embrace the in between, confident that something will grow from it, the words will return in their own time, when they are ready.
How about you? Do you embrace the time in-between writing (or other creative projects)? Or do you chafe against it?