ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
I should start by saying that I’m not someone prone to writer’s block. In general, I have more ideas than I know what to do with. And more words wanting to get out of my head and onto the paper (or you know, screen) than I generally have time to lead them there. Even as I scribble out this confession, I have no shortage of creative projects on my metaphoric plate.
Still, if I’m honest with you (and myself), I’ve been having a little trouble lately, well, writing. That’s not exactly true. The real truth is I’m having a truckload of trouble writing. I simply can’t seem to usher the words anywhere near to where they need to go. And even when I do, I find myself looking around the room for whoever wrote the banal scratch I’m staring at. And then, more often than not, I close my notebook and go on with my day as if the very world itself were not collapsing around me.
Now, for most people, that would be enough. But actually the terror does not end there. At the same time I’m engaged in this mortal struggle with words, I’m also slightly out of my depth on several other projects: (1) researching a technical subject I know almost nothing about for my next novel; (2) working on material for a non-fiction book and companion workshop; and (3) developing a multi-faceted podcast series.
And when I’m not doing one of these stretching exercises, I’m probably watching a master class to evolve my craft, researching one of the hundreds of things I still don’t know about marketing and audience-building, or falling down the rabbit hole of social media. Oh yeah, I’ve also got a law practice to run and a bright young boy who stays up nights thinking of ways to keep me on my toes.
As you might guess, on any given day I can find myself feeling less than competent about any or all of these components. And really, all the advice out there on life hacking doesn’t help. Those seemingly innocuous self-help bites just reinforce the feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing.
Admittedly, writing is not like most other jobs. It’s prone to a unique kind of frustration. Not the least of which is that there have never been any guarantees that the ideas or the words or your focus will all show up when they are supposed to, in any kind of meaningful order. But that is also what makes writing kind of magical.
The thing I’m starting to believe is that the harder I try to make any of these things happen, the more I chase the fickle cats of progress or achievement, the more I think I really need to do or be some thing, the more these things become water between my fingers. There seems to be an inverse magnetic effect.
I find that when I loosen my grip a little, however, things start to shift. When I practice walking, instead of just getting somewhere, then the view expands. And then what appears on the horizon as I wander these tangled paths of a creative life looks like a hidden meadow, a place where the trees offer quiet shade and the grass wants nothing more than for me to just come lie down.
And so I am learning to walk without expectation of where I’m going to arrive. And to realize how many unnecessary things I’ve been carrying on this long journey. And to set them down.
This essay is one of 66 from the Gold Nautilus Award Winning collection Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand. You can get your own copy of the book here: https://bit.ly/40s3Gh0
To Write is to Live Inside a Dream.
This is not the sort of thing I do much, talk about writing. Unless you count one of the main characters in my first novel, or several essays I've written, or unless someone asks and I know they are not just making small talk, or conversations I have over dinner with friends, or if I just feel like talking. But other than that, almost never.
I dance around words. I pretend to hide from sentences. I tease turns of phrase. It takes me days to pick up a pen. I am a writer.
I want to tell you how some days I'm taller than buildings, can stop speeding bullets with my fingertips, carry babies from burning houses, and write my way out of anything and into anything else. Before you make coffee.
But it isn't always that way. Not for me. Probably not for you. Not for anyone else I know.
How can I tell you what it means to be a writer? Imagine you knew nothing of science, how would you describe air or what it feels like to breathe? How would you explain to someone from a dry planet that water is wet, or show the colorblind how the sky is blue.
I scribble masterpieces on matchbooks. I collect sentence fragments like fairy dust. I watch the world through my own kaleidoscope eyes. I am a writer.
To write is to live inside a dream. More than this, it is to be the dreamer and the dream. To live in a limitless world of seamless dimensions. Writing and dreaming share a common language. Both speak in metaphors, the only suitable tongue for this extraordinary experience called life.
I awake from a world of limitless possibilities inside a world of narrow boundaries. I scramble to scribble down the memories of the other side.
You and I are metaphors. Along with all we see and do. There is no explanation for life beyond the dreamworld, beyond what we can learn from poetry and from Zen masters. This world is an illusion, a fact we forget again and again and again.
Buckminster Fuller reminded us, There are no solids in the universe. There's not even a suggestion of a solid. Think about that.
To write is to fully embrace the world where the illusion does not matter, a world where things like love defiantly reign supreme. Because love is not the opposite of hate, of fear, of oppression, or inhibition. Love contains all these things and more.
This is what Rilke was talking about when he said, Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.
To write is to begin to know. To know is to begin to become.
Once you lose the illusion that love, good, righteousness are on one side, and whatever other thing you can imagine is on the other, then your ears start to open. Then your eyes start to hear. Then you may begin to write.
But make no mistake, that's what it is, a beginning. The dreams of our greatness, they come and they go. The moments of fearless are fickle and slow.
Maybe you'll read these words and either nod or shake your head. Depending on the sun or the moon or the tides. But it may or may not change your world. Because the truth is that there are days we all wonder how we got here. Days we stumble, days filled with fear. Days we look around at the room, wonder who will find us out and how soon.
These things, these thoughts, these soul-crushing doubts, by the way, are how we know we're on the right track.
Without them, without a sense of humility, without some acknowledgement of grace, of magic, of the muse, of the 10,000 hours of practice required, we'll never really inhabit this world. But that's a story for another day. Today we're talking about writing.
Because there is almost nothing better. As Bukowski once reminded us, you will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.
I spent the better part of ten years writing my first novel, Waking Up at Rembrandt’s. I say that like I did nothing but sit in a room for ten years and write that novel. That isn’t true, of course. Back then I did not have a small child dependent upon me for his livelihood. But I did have a day job, a penchant for travel, a taste for good wine, an epicurean addiction, and when I wasn't suffering a bout of espresso-induced insomnia, a love of sleep, each of which take up a lot of time.
The thing is, a writing life is neither glamorous nor easy. And yet, if it is in your veins, no amount of transfusions of normal life will help. So if you are called by these words, I invite you to let go of your resistance and join me. You won’t regret it.
As Bukowski also reminded us, the gods wait to delight in you.