It's summer and nothing I write sounds good. Normally I wouldn't give up like this, but . . . Actually, I have no good excuse.
Instead, here are my three favorite things about summer (and if you pushed me, also life in general).
It's summer and nothing I write sounds good. Normally I wouldn't give up like this, but . . . Actually, I have no good excuse.
Instead, here are my three favorite things about summer (and if you pushed me, also life in general).
This week I went to the doctor on my first day of being sick.
Please understand: this is shocking. I usually refuse to visit the doctor until I've been hanging onto life by a thread for over a week. Curtis (he's very wonderful) tells me more than a dozen times I should go, and I come up with more than a dozen excuses. When I get discouraged beyond hopelessness, I cave, gather my wits and tissues, and go.
This time was different. A good friend who visited our tiny home last weekend was diagnosed with strep on Wednesday. I don't have time to be sick for more than a weekend, and strep can beat you into the ground for a lot longer than that. Ain't nobody got time for that. There's too much summer happening everywhere.
I knew I was getting sick the night before because THOUSANDS of tiny gnomes were marching across the back of my throat wearing hobnail boots (the real kind, you know, the ones with NAILS STICKING OUT OF THE SOLES). The next morning, each one of the the thousand gnomes had invited ten of their friends—so 11,000 gnomes, each with multiple nails in their boots, were wreaking havoc on my throat. You get the idea. So, I hauled myself to the doctor's office.
Every movie ever features the classic 3-second taxi call. Not so in today's film, featuring sick Anneliese. After half a dozen attempts, I gave up and decided a mile and a half isn't really that far to walk. Basic conceptual problem highlighting my inability to stick something out? Maybe.
Got to the clinic and made friends with the nurse who took my vitals and also doesn't own a scale or know how much she weighs. The doctor came in eventually, did all the things doctors do, and eventually told me I didn't have strep. She gave me somewhere between 5 and 100 pieces of paper about the common cold, told me it was going to be painful for a couple of days, and sent me home.
I walked home too. Maybe if I'd been diagnosed with strep I would've taken a cab—but I couldn't justify spending the money now that I knew I really wasn't at death's door.
Anyways, for the past three days I've sat on the couch sneezing and honking and watching the world go by for three of the warmest, sunniest, cheeriest Chicago summer days this year. It felt hopeless. I missed watching Curtis (he's very wonderful) hit a home run at the softball game on Saturday. I missed meeting my brand new nephew (I'm assured he's very cute, but pictures just aren't the same). I missed going out for pizza with everyone, and sat at home blowing through boxes of tissues, reading Louis L'Amour, drawing, and watching a British cooking show (I quote Curtis: What is it with you only watching cooking shows?). The list of things I missed felt long, as did my face and soul on Saturday morning.
Then, somewhere on Saturday afternoon, I remembered that for weeks I've been complaining to myself because I want to finish the sequel to The Cup but I never have time. And God gave me three perfect days with nothing to do but finish it. And I got over moping because even though I couldn't swim in the lake and throw the softball and eat ice cream—I could stay home and write. Being sick is being sick, but now it feels more like a blessing.
My mom always used to tell me to write about what I know. Then, when anything happened to me (slam my finger in a door, get in a fight with someone, experience the hurt of a loved one), she would tell me to write about it. It's a logical sequence, because even though experiencing something doesn't necessarily make you an expert, it makes you closer than the guy who lives in a tree and sleeps all day (yes, you guessed it, I'm talking about sloths. I know more about life than a sloth does. Move me to the head of the class).
Today, I got home from work and ate an entire (snack-sized) bag of Snyders honey mustard onion pretzel pieces (they're delicious, 10 out of 10 would recommend) while I looked out the window at the dog park next door (don't worry, mom, I think I also ate a real balanced dinner at some point in the evening).
Then I fought a lengthy internal war. It was over whether or not I would go outside and enjoy the peerless, blinding late afternoon that today decided to be.
Duty and drive won out over pleasure, so I eventually coerced myself onto the couch (I know, sitting on a comfortable couch sounds like torture, right?) and opened the word document that I've been slaving away over since November 28, 2016. I know the date because I started book two the day before the sprinkler in our house exploded and ruined just about everything in the living room.
I don't really know what makes someone a fast writer—I intentionally don't look it up because it's probably much faster than me (talking writer, not typer). Then I'd have to dig through the freezer and pull out the freezer burned triple chocolate moose tracks and eat the whole thing as I cried my career into the empty carton and the sticky spoon (I'm fairly competitive. Apparently I always have to win. I just don't see it in myself though) (you're like . . . is she serious?) (I think only with people who can handle it. I wouldn't want to crush someone's hopes and dreams by beating them. PLUS I usually lose 95 percent of the games I play, so God is constantly teaching me humility).
If I pay attention to what I'm doing and don't get distracted watching the shadow of the sunset across the skyline, I can write about 1,000 words in 45 minutes. Today was a pretty distracted-y type of day, so two hours later when my laptop started to get very hot on the bottom and the fan turned on, I'd written about 1,500 words.
After looking up a recipe for macarons for research purposes (yes, really, as a matter of fact), I clicked back to my word document and realized I should save the work I'd done so far. I tilted the computer forward slightly, clicked command + s, and watched in tentative nervousness as that little colorful spinny doodad came up and started doing its thing. I waited patiently, thanks to being married to patient Curtis (he's very wonderful). Eventually I could move the mouse again.
But I couldn't type. So I kept waiting. Maybe pressed a key? Mostly just moved the mouse around and tried to figure out what the theologically correct thing was to pray in the moment (mostly, I said, Please, Lord, don't let it crash. And if it does, let it auto recover). After a few more minutes, everything froze completely. I stared at it for a while, and nothing happened. I stared at it a while longer. Still nothing happened. So, briskly and without hesitation I held down the power button and restarted my computer.
Then I went into the kitchen to make some dinner because if I'm going to be miserable, I may as well be well-fed. I had zucchini and corn and pasta and salmon
Came back to my computer, which had restarted. Keyed in the password. The Safari window reopened with the right windows. Momentary high hopes. The word window was not open. Tentative hopes? Opened the book file, which you'll remember I tried to save right as the crash began. It opened. Word count was 8,000 less than it had been moments before. Wide-eyed disbelief, terror, and woe. Word count bounced back up to just about 1,500 words short of where I had been. Relief? Sorta? Lost two hours of work, 1,500 words, and at least one jenga block in the set that comprises my wobbly sanity (writers, yo. wacky group, them).
You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you watch two people you love start to fight? Or when you see the bus coming and you know you're too far away and you're going to miss it? When you break something expensive and you have to confess? It's like disappointment + dread + sorrow?
That's also how it feels when you delete 1,500 words that you just spent hours weaving and crafting. If I'm being honest they WERE PROBABLY THE BEST 1,500 WORDS I'VE EVER WRITTEN IN MY SHORT CAREER. And now they're gone forever (memorial service Sat. @ 10 a.m., see you there. BYOTissues).
However, the lucky thing is, they took way less time to butcher together the second time. So that's good. And, since I felt it and wrote about it, you don't have to feel it yourself (although I think almost everyone probably does at some point in life).
The catalyst of writer's block isn't always just not knowing what to write. It can be a few things, depending on the day.
Ideas are part of my writer's block today. When a writer doesn't write recreationally (novel concept, but sadly common *pun intended), their brain is like a water balloon that someone left on a dripping faucet. The balloon gets bigger and bigger, and droops low in the sink. Eventually it explodes (not literally, of course), or even if you take it off the tap it's bloated, clumsy, and unmanageable.
Thinking time is also contributing to today's writer's block. Between work and trips and church, I've spent less time doing what introverted writers like doing best: staring at the wall (trying not to drool, of course) and contemplating the meaning of life (loving God, loving others, writing about it, duh).
Drama and uncertainty also contribute a nice flavor to the cocktail of writer's block. If you normally use all ten fingers to type, and six of them are in big bandages, typing is harder. Half my mind is occupied with thoughts about our future (mostly when we're going to get a puppy . . .) and people I love who are sad. It's hard to focus on one thing when you're really thinking about a dozen things.
I work with a lady who's a veteran storyteller. Over the years she's written more than 500 feature stories (which is a lot, since she's not very old). She has a special knack for pulling a theme out of an interview, and weaving it into an article so seamlessly that the reader barely even notices. Then at the end you're scratching your head wondering how you got from A to Z because you didn't notice the journey. Every theme points to God's sovereign intervention, in an honoring way. Basically, if I can write stories like she can write them when I'm her age, I'll be ecstatic.
Today she was talking about how God doesn't waste anything. Even when we feel like something is wasted (i.e., time spent sick, injured, maybe even just job-searching or researching or waiting for something to change), it's not a waste for Him. His economy uses our trials, struggles, joy, waiting, all of it, for good.
It struck a chord with me, because I hate wasting time.
If someone is doing something that I think I could do faster, my soul chafes violently. I'm not patient in any sense of the term, and waiting or slowing down often feels like a punishment. Curtis (he's very wonderful) has had to teach me how to be patient (or at least feign patience) over the past few years—usually leading by example.
Often, moving slower feels like a waste of time. And rest feels like a waste of time. Sometimes thinking feels like a waste of time. And writer's block ALWAYS feels like a waste of time, energy, and articulation. But God doesn't waste anything, not even writer's block (or waiting, or being sick, or ___________).
So for once, instead of writing an angsty post about how I detest writer's block, today I'm thankful for it. Because God's not wasting it.
*** You'll be happy to know that for the past week, I've been speaking to strangers every time I'm in the elevator. So far, I've averted any catastrophic social situation—but stay tuned, it'll come.
I constantly say things in the elevator that label me as consistently incapable of social interaction.
One time I told a gentleman and a lady that their shirts matched. They both muttered and avoided eye contact. I tried to help the situation by talking about the weather. It didn't work. Another time, I told a stranger I'd seen him arrive in the parking lot earlier that day, and noticed he was from Colorado. I thought I was trying to be friendly. He looked at me like I'd asked for his wallet.
Another time, I had a Wall Street Journal under my arm when I saw my boss's boss's boss. He made a comment about how I was smart to read it, and I said, "Oh, I just pretend." He answered, "It's okay, if there's any good month to invest it's this month."
So, I got off the elevator and did that thing where you just kinda say words and hope they make sense. "Oh yeah, that's what they're saying." I don't know who's saying it though, because I don't really know anything about investing.
Another time, after a particularly busy week, I got on the elevator and said to the gentleman I stepped on with, "We made it to Friday—with some dignity, some poise, and a whole lot of desperation." I said it as soon as the doors closed, and he was silent ALL THE WAY UP TO MY FLOOR at which point he responded with that noise people make when they're agreeing, and he said, "You said it absolutely right."
My insecurity had a heyday.
Other things I've said about elevators (I'm quoting myself in messages I sent to a friend):
"i had to wait for the elevator for like 8 minutes and when it finally came it was full of people. My worst nightmare."
"The elevator stopped on every floor. I could have walked faster."
"But I have to wait for those people to get on the elevator before I go out there I so don't have to ride with them. I just heard it beep. Any moment now." (I have apparently said this multiple times)
"This is about as awkward as a full elevator."
"I’ll come down on the next elevator. Two people are coming down on this one and leaving with them would mean social interaction."
You get the picture. It's not that I don't like people—I love people. I just can't function in elevators. My parents always tried to teach me to think before I speak. It worked so well that I often can't think of things to say in normal situations because I'm thinking so hard.
The redeeming part of the story is other people. They are gracious and kind even when they don't know the turmoil in my introverted soul (or maybe it's because they know it). Another redemption is the people I tell the stories to afterward, who listen and laugh and reassure me that my social career is not quite ending yet.
And the best redemption is that it gives me something to write about—which is great for me, and a bummer for everyone else in my life who will probably end up in a story someday.
I write and edit all day most days. Still, trying to write my own thing after almost a month of keyboard silence is like trying to learn to write for fun all over again. I'm gritting my teeth and frowning at my screen, trying to intimidate it into yielding high-caliber work. So far, all my laptop has done is stare back at me with a bored, mildly amused expression. Occasionally it yawns and asks if I'm done yet. I can take a hint. Maybe (not).
Self-admitted, I'm not a poet—I respect the art, but it's never been my choice of medium. Well, not for a long time. When I first learned that poems didn't really have to rhyme or have any structure, I went poem-crazy. Filled up a notebook at least, with fine work. It was really quality stuff, like:
The sky is blue today
I see the blue sky and the green grass
and I hope to get a letter
from grandma in the mail.
That phase passed, though (to everyone's relief). Now I realize that poetry is in a class alone, especially for communicating emotion and ideas simultaneously. But sometimes it's also in a class of complete nonsense, which nobody admits because It's so deep and beautiful that it thwarts my comprehension. Or, as us common folk would say, I don't get it. In an effort not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I read poetry when I come across it and try very hard to decipher it. I have probably a 60 percent success rate. It's tricky for a total literalist like me, who reads:
I spilled the milk
all over the floor
And thinks, What a bummer. Did you clean it up or did you call the dog in? A skilled poetry-interpreter reads the SAME THING and is on the verge of tears because they see the author grieving over an immeasurable loss that will have more than one implication on his future.
And I'm over here thinking, Never mind, I give up. I'll just try to color inside the lines with my crayons. Let me know when recess starts.
But enough is enough. I wasted a lot of your time with nonsense about poetry (which I really do think is great), because I'm secretly hoping maybe you won't actually get to my poem because YES, writers are occasionally nervous about people reading their stuff.
In the rhythm of life
writing is like running.
Do it all the time
and you'll breeze past obstacles
with long, steady sentences
and barely break a sweat.
Start when you're out of shape
and it's agony
as you try to say something
but can't because
Reading good writing,
like watching people run,
Maybe someday I could be that good
but only if you work very, very hard
and I promise it won't always be fun.
And if there's a point
if it's to win a race
or deliver a message
or beat a personal record
then there is delight in the accomplishment.
But if it's obligation
then word after word feels like
misery and never-ending drudgery.
and focus on Someone that matters.
That's the best way to do it
in running too
It's interesting how you feel strongly about different things at different points of life. When I was a kid, it was all about fairness with my brothers and sisters. In high school I felt strongly about my independence and how I was right about everything. In college I realized that I didn't know anything in high school. I also felt strongly about wanting friends, relationships, a certain future.
When I graduated, I felt accomplished, and at the same time worthless as I interviewed for multiple jobs and didn't get any of them. When I started my first full-time job, I felt 1 percent secure and 99 percent panicked, afraid of failure and ridicule.
It's easy to forget feeling strongly for those things, because I'm not in any of those stages right now.
I look around and see people who I love and care about in all different stages—waiting for a job, waiting to work their passion, waiting for children, waiting for love, waiting for reconciliation—and I'm reminded that every stage of life has strong feelings. Many of them are marked by waiting for an uncertain future, and many of them are extremely painful.
Part of mourning with those who mourn (and wait, and hope) is understanding that I can't say anything to fix your current situation. I don't know your future.
Letters and words alone have no significance—it's when someone strings them together that they take on meaning. Chip Kidd, in his introduction to Just My Type, says,
"Let's consider the English alphabet: twenty-six purely abstract symbols that in and of themselves mean absolutely nothing, but when put together in the right combinations can introduce into the heads of readers an infinite variety of sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, places, people, characters, situations, feelings, ideas."
Without a purpose, words become meaningless. With a purpose, Chip adds,
Writing well is creating a world that your reader can enter without trying, and communicating an idea so clearly a child could explain it from your description. To give words successful purpose, a writer must know a) what they want to say and b) how to say it.
The purpose without the talent is inarticulate passion.
The talent without the purpose is empty vocabulary.
A lot of life is about repetition. We wake up in the morning. Do some sort of workout. Eat. Get ready for work. Go to work. Daily grind, daily grind, finish some projects, eat lunch, daily grind, get off work. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Do dishes. Do a few small things. Go to bed.
You get the point, probably because you do some iteration of it. Over time, we work ourselves into ruts. We eat this for breakfast—because it's what we always eat. We go food shopping at this time—because it's when we always go. We wear this dress to weddings, walk that route to school, listen to this music in the shower—because it's how we've been doing it for years.
Repetition makes some things better—if you write every day, little by little, you'll become a more clear, effective writer. If you paint every day, you'll be quicker, sharper, cleaner. If you chop wood, you'll get stronger. If you give IVs, you'll be faster. If you cook, your food will taste better (unless you always burn it or use bad recipes. But that's a different topic for a different day).
Repetition makes some things worse—if you fight with your husband (wife, brother, parent, neighbor) every day, you'll get better at fighting (and conversely, worse at agreeing, and relationships, and being friends in general). If you follow the same mind-numbing routine every day, it's easy to lose sight of the small beauties and tiny moments that make the humdrum magnificent.
There's a two-fold point:
1) Make sure you're repeating the right things. Choose the good things (creating beauty, loving, being kind) and scrap the bad (picking fights, disrespecting, being malicious). In the long run, when your character ruts run deep, you'll be glad you did. So will everyone else.
2) Remember why you're doing what you're doing. If you're creating (or any verb) every day, it's easy to become disenchanted with your craft. But when the going gets tough, remember why you began in the first place. Everyone has different reasons, but many artists share at least one:
Merriam-Webster, the be-all and end-all of word definitions, capitalizations, and spellings, defines turn of phrase as a way of saying or describing something.
One of the key aspects of being a writer is your turn of phrase. As a writer, if you can't say what you want to say well, no one will listen. If you aren't able to articulate points 1) clearly, 2) concisely, and 3) engagingly (I couldn't think of a good c-word for that one), not many people will read your writing. When you're a writer you have to think before you write, consider the implications of what you've written, and study the back story of what you're covering so you know the whole story.
After all, you want to give the correct impression and send the right message. Writing is a big responsibility.
It's not difficult to pick it out when another writer has good turn of phrase, because their writing makes you want to keep reading or makes you stop and think. It's inspiring because if someone else can do it well, you can do it well too.
The best part about writing is that no matter how you feel about your skills today, there's always room to improve. It's all about 10,000 hours and not stopping when you get there.
*Not a writer? Try replacing writer and writing in the paragraphs above with your noun and verb—politician, librarian, professor, businessman, doctor, pilot, actor—and see if it doesn't apply to you too.