“The risk of writing is an internal risk. You brave the depths of your being and then bring it up for commentary by the world. Not the work of wimps.” Laraine Herring, Writing Begins With the Breath
A friend who read Life In General had this to say: “I loved your book, Becca, but there were times when I wanted more of the story, times I felt like I wanted you to expand it into even more directions, emotionally and literally.”
At first I was tempted to defend the short essays which fill the book, reminding her they were all originally blog posts that are, by nature, small slices of life and not meant to be long-form essays.
But I didn’t.
Because deep down, I know she’s right.
I recognize it myself - I come to a certain place in the writing, a crossroads in effect, when I could either stop traveling or continue on into the unknown. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I stop dead in my tracks. It’s visceral sensation, a need to jump up and hurry away from the keyboard, put down the pen and close the notebook.
It’s fear, plain and simple.
As Laraine Herring says, “the risk of writing is internal. You can’t really prepare yourself for what’s in there, because you don’t know all of what’s in there.” Writing unearths ideas and emotions and opinions we aren’t always aware of. Sometimes these are uncomfortable. Sometimes they are empowering.
They are often revelatory. They are always surprising.
“When I coach students through essay writing,” says Anna Qundlen, in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, “I invariably give the same direction: go deeper, go deeper. In each iteration, reveal more, of who you truly are, of what you really think.” It’s like opening a series of beautiful nested boxes. Each one contains something unexpected. Each one takes you a little step deeper into the inner earth of your soul. As you lift the lid, you run the risk of exposing something you aren’t quite sure how to handle.
So yes, “going deep” into the psyche is scary, and I’ve never pretended toward intrepidity. But I believe another factor in my tendency to stop short is a fear of inadequacy: not only as a writer, but also as a thinker. I’m not sure I possess the kind of analytical mindset required to process complex issues in writing. I shy away from the kind of deep thought necessary to plumb the furthest depths of an emotion or an issue, and stay on the surface where things are simpler.
Where will I find the courage and the ingenuity to take my writing and my thinking to this next level?
Two words: Focus and Stillness.
“There is so little time for stillness in the everyday world,” I wrote in Life In General. “We itch to fill every second with stimulation, entertainment or productivity, and modern technology gives us a million opportunities to do just that."
A friend and I were talking about the concept of children and boredom. She said that on the rare occasions her son complained of boredom, she would remind him how lucky he was. “Now you have an opportunity to really choose what you’d like to do, even if it’s just sitting down and watching people go by.”
It’s the quality of quiet contemplation that I lack: the ability to slow down, observe, wonder. To think about what I’ve read or listened to, heard or seen. And it isn’t as if I don’t have time - my time is mostly my own these days and the hours in front of me are often spacious (at least in comparison to many people I know). It’s mostly that I feel the siren call of busyness, the urge to do something “productive,” one that is provocative and pervasive in my life, as I imagine it is in yours.
Again, it’s like opening the nested boxes, looking at the deeper meaning of each level of experience.
That sounds kind of intense, does’t it?
I’ve been re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, preparatory to reading her latest, Lila. These three novels are nested beautifully together, each one delving deep into the experiences of two families in a small Iowa town in the 1950’s at a particular slice of time. Robinson is a writer who forces her reader to slow down and focus. Her writing is stately and diligent. It unfolds ideas about grace and faith and fealty in powerful language that begs re-reading. I cannot imagine a woman who writes this way as anything other than one who moves slowly and thoughtfully through the world, leaving little trace of herself on the modern thoroughfares of social media or public acclaim. Yet she is fearless about exploring the hunger and thirst of the soul. She ponders questions that pertain to us all: where do we find the grace to forgive ourselves or those who have disappointed us? how does faith matter in our relationships with family and friends? what constitutes a life well lived?
She is one who goes deep, and perhaps can begin to teach me how it’s done. Reading these books, reading them slowly as this author mandates by her writing style, is such a pleasure, especially on these cold and snowy winter days that seem perfect for slowing down and savoring the stillness outside my windows.
As I think about the new writing I want to do this year, I know I must move forward to that next level my friend urged me toward. I’ll have to “brave the depths of my being” to explore a larger panorama of my life, seek more details from my memories, and unearth some of those emotions that, until now, I’ve left by the side of the road.
How about you? Do you eagerly open the nested boxes containing your deepest thoughts and fears? Or do you leave them closed tightly by the side of the road?