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The wind in my face, the play in writing

After one of my last posts about my struggle with self doubt, a reader made a good point: Writing should be fun. We should enjoy it. I am grateful for her comment, for this reminder. I agree with her and I didn’t mean to imply that the process should be all business. Of course we take our writing seriously—we work consistently, we spend hours revising, we become business-minded and steely when our work is ready to fly out into the world and we need to find it a good home. Writing is hard work. But it can also be fun. Julia Cameron says, “When we open our hearts to play, we encounter the ‘play’ of ideas. Creativity is light-hearted, not solemn.” And so what does this mean exactly? How do we harbor the joy while still being tough on ourselves, pushing ourselves to create our best work?

When I think of this marriage between play and work I think of running. Yup, I feel like it’s the best way for me to explain how writing feels to me, how it’s both strenuous and nerve-wracking, but also so enjoyable. The two acts, running and writing, are related in the ways they push me, the ways I enjoy them (or don’t enjoy them), and in the ways they affect my life.

Beginning a run is never fun for me. Just getting out the door is a struggle, a battle between my lazy, resistant self and the healthy, productive self. My mind keeps reminding my body of how hard it is--whats wrong with you? why the heck do you want to do this? But I tie up the laces and soon I’m walking at a brisk pace. And then I begin to run. And this is what happens: my legs feel like lead, my lungs burn, and my mind is screaming stop! Physiologically the body goes through its warm-up phase: muscles loosen, warm up, and receive oxygen, the mind and body connect, the heart rate rises, the knees and hips get used to the pounding. The endorphins aren’t pumping through the system yet. It’s a mental game, really. And so, at the beginning, it’s all guts and don’t give ups and its uncomfortable and every muscle in your body wants you to stop. But then. Something happens. Your muscles loosen, your breathing slows and you find a pattern; you like the sound of your feet hitting the pavement, you revel in the feel of the wind on your face. I’m enjoying running at this point. I’m on cruise control. Why don’t you do this everyday, I say to myself. See, it’s fun. And at the end of every run I’m so glad I did it. Sometimes I immediately want to go on another run! Craziness.

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This, to me, is exactly how writing is. It’s hard at the beginning. The getting started. The diving in. I don’t want to do it, but I know it’s good for me. And so I begin. And I write these awful clunky sentences or I just stare at the blank screen and will the words to appear. But soon, I say to myself: write anything. And I do. And then, after a while…What is it that happens? Is it a trance? Yes, it’s like running—I’m lost and moving and going and writing and feeling the wind on my face and before long— five hours have passed. Five hours! And it was fun. That, to me, is the play—the creating, the imagining, the making-things-up; that’s the stuff I believe keeps everyone writing. If you can really get lost in it, there is nothing like it, nothing at all. I imagine everyone that creates art feels this way. Actors who don’t want to be anywhere but the stage. Painters who emerge from their studios with paint all over them, amazed that it’s turned dark. There is nowhere I would rather be than the page. When things are going well, there is nowhere else.

So what’s my point with all this? I suppose the point is that there’s all that good, wonderful stuff… the play… but writing is also a craft. And perhaps the craft part can be likened to the weight workouts in the gym before the run or the painful practice sprints to help bring down one’s time. It’s really hard work. And while I love it and I pretty much live for those five hour magical stretches, I am still critical of what I’ve created. I think it’s because I do respect the art so much. And I want to produce work that I think, no—I know—I am capable of. I always look over my drafts and think—what can I do better? Because we can always do better. And being content with “good enough” isn’t enough. Because when we rest on our laurels we can’t possibly know what more there was, how far we were capable of going. So we all do it, you know? We move that finish line further away and we keep pace and push ourselves to improve. But somehow, always, we must never forget the joy and the play, the reason we do it in the first place.

“When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it's a wonderful way to spend one's life.”

-Erica Jong

photo credit: run along

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