We go up to heaven and down to hell a dozen times a day – at least, I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative.
– May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude
Seated in the corner of my office, I close the internet window on my laptop and hunker down to write. With just a half hour left before I leave to meet a friend for lunch, I ought to have enough time to squeeze in my goal of 500 words for the day.
I need to write something for the week’s blog post and, hopefully, for my newsletter too. Neither need to be very long. The problem, though, as I begin, is that, well, I don’t know where to begin. I don’t have a story to tell, not even the faintest glimmer of an idea to explore. I had a couple of ideas flitting around last week but failed to capture them, and now one is stale, like bread left out overnight, and the other is shrouded in fog too dense to be explored in this limited amount of time.
Still, I close the internet, sit in my chair, and begin. I write 100 words or so about not knowing what to write – this is an old trick of many writers wanting simply to get their fingers started. I eke out a few creaky sentences about the difficulty of committing this time to writing when there’re so many more concrete tasks I could be knocking off my to-do list. I write about my struggle with the awareness that time committed to words on the page will not necessarily produce a useable product.
Then, my words peter out. Twenty minutes to go.
Hoping for a little positive juju, I reach past the laptop and light my oil lamp for the first time in weeks, gently wiping accumulated dust from its glossy blue ceramic sides. I observe the rising smoke, the smell of the lit match and wonder, “Is there something there to write about?” The answer is quick and simple: “No.”
Stumped, I let my eyes wander around my studio. My painting space is filled with happy turquoise and yellow paints, with the brushes and pens standing in brightly colored containers. Further down on the counter top sits an overgrown Peace Lily and a slowly dying prayer plant. (Symbolic? I hope not.) Drawn by the need for productivity, stuck in my battle with words, I leave my chair and beginning packing books for my upcoming retreat.
Then, I pause for a while, skimming Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I’ve not read since seminary.
Rilke writes to his young, eager, writing friend:
It is clear we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance. We can be sure of very little, but the need to court struggle is a surety that will not leave us.
This, I think, is something I can use for my retreat.
I return to my chair, open my lap top, find the necessary file, and type in the quote. Productivity stalls again, and I take a sip of quickly cooling tea. The dog snores, curled in her chair across from me – her concerns with productivity nonexistent. The lamp’s flame burns on and, again, I scan the room looking for inspiration. Some inward part of me gently taps each sight, each feeling, like a farmer thumping watermelons, listening for the subtle sound that indicates ripeness; I’m looking for that secret door behind which inspiration hides.
I look at the clock, fifteen more minutes to go.
I ponder Rilke’s advice: “We must embrace struggle.” I turn my eye to my own inward struggle here in this room, in this chair, with no real idea what to write and a small and growing pile of words on the page that confirm it.
What, I wonder, will the product of this time, this commitment to persevere, be, if not a blog post or a newsletter? What will come of the discipline that ties me to this chair with my feet flat on the ground, my back supported by a pillow? Is it possible that other things are being born in this time, this space, this commitment? And, last, but most important to my mind, does it matter if I never know?
At last, I begin to write into the question, into the struggle, into the hunch that this perseverance is itself a product – not an end, but a means that will bear fruit in time and places I cannot yet image. I push past the low-hanging fruit of productivity and embrace the struggle, and the struggle itself gives me these words.
Kelly Chripczuk is a Writer, Speaker, and Spiritual Director who writes regularly at thiscontemplativelife.org. She works and plays on a small farm in Central PA, which she shares with a gaggle of kids and pets and one very patient husband.
Friends, my new book Love Letters To Writers: Encouragement, Accountability, and Truth-Telling comes out next week, and I’m so excited because I feel like, in some very fundamental way, this book speaks from the very heart of what I do as a writer, editor, and writing coach. I hope you will consider pre-ordering a copy through your favorite retailer by using this link. (A print version and more retailers will be added in the coming days.) Thank you.