Last month the manuscript of my first book, Ground of Your Own Choosing, finally went to the publisher. You can’t imagine the relief I feel to be approaching the completion of this intense, time-devouring project.
Putting your voice in the world in whatever form your creativity takes—writing a book, designing a bridge, developing a branding strategy—is exquisite agony. And how long it takes! My journey with writing began fifteen years ago in Bend, Oregon.
I was attending a training with Richard Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute? He was leading us in a skills exercise, encouraging us to think outside the box, and at the time I thought I added the word “writing” to my list of skills simply because I had a pencil in my hand and it was a handy response. Today I would be more inclined to see it as divine intervention.
Thinking back, I realize that this was a wonderful example of a saying I heard recently: “Don’t worry about falling—just lean into it so that when you fall you fall forward.”
Later, when I prioritized my list of skills, much to my surprise, writing ended up on top. I would have expected it rather to be public speaking or counseling which come much more naturally to me than writing.
After this experience I began to honor the act of writing in simple ways. I refinished my great-grandmother’s desk so I’d have a special place to compose letters to friends and family.
Occasionally I wrote poems and essays, some of which found their way into the newsletter published by our church.
Being a contributor led me to the idea of creating my own newsletter which would force me to write regularly, and that’s what I have been doing for the last five years.
To make the leap from newsletter to book, at the beginning of 2007 , I committed myself to using my column as a venue for book
chapters, one a month for a year.
THE INSIDE STORY
That is the linear, external version. Inside me, as I worked through successive gauntlets of self-doubt, procrastination, and trying to figure just what it was I was trying to say, it was a lot messier.
The poems and essays I mentioned had only got written on long weekends because I didn’t know how to give myself time to write, nor did I feel that my efforts were worth the investment. Writing was then a luxury which I could afford only after I’d cleared my to-do list, and unless I had a windfall of extra time, it didn’t happen.
Even after my newsletter was being distributed to eager readers and I started receiving positive feedback, the idea of writing a book seemed totally unfeasible.
To offset my self-generated negativity, I found a writing teacher and mentor, and I spent several years in dialogue with her. She would sing a melody of direction and encouragement, and I would answer in counterpoint with all the reasons why I couldn’t write more—a demanding professional schedule, elderly parents, children, grandchildren, community service commitments.
I’m tempted to say that “on paper” all of these excuses were real, but of course the issue was about not getting anything on paper. All of my justifications came down to my belief that I didn’t have the time, which I now know is just an excuse for not being ready to commit myself fully to the creative process.
ON THE TRAIN
To celebrate my 60th birthday, I traveled to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited to participate in a program on Transition in the Second Half of Life led by William Bridges, another of my valued teachers.
This sounded reasonable, but it didn’t work. I not only didn’t write anything that came together in a way that made sense to me, I also got very angry at myself for failing to achieve my goal.
In the middle of the night on my return trip, with nothing to show for my Amtrak writing “retreat” but a page of illegible scribbling (which incidentally later became a column), I learned what I’d really come for—the realization that even my best business disciplines were not going to drive a creative process.
My forced march was a total failure, but by wanting to write enough to at least try it, I was able to break through an invisible wall and accept operating at the precarious edge of my own growth instead of relying on my known strengths. Thinking back, I realize that this was a wonderful example of a saying I heard recently: “Don’t worry about falling—just lean into it so that when you fall you fall forward.” Trying to mandate a solution to the book had caused me to stumble, but when I did I fell forward into a much better place.
After my experience on the train, the book became an internal rather than an external process. I stopped trying to get it done or figure out exactly where it was going. I’d spent months trying to come up with the perfect outline from which the book would “write itself,” but ultimately the outline which proved the most helpful was a list of phrases from a brainstorming session I had had years earlier that I came across unexpectedly in a moment of frustration.
AND NOW THAT IT’S ALMOST OVER
Although I can’t say I have enjoyed my editor’s insistence that I rework several chapters, or the seemingly endless revisions, I am beginning to see the value of being open to the synergy that comes from revisiting, reshaping, and refining with others what you thought was finished. This is something my “get it done” businesslike self (my MBTI® code ends with a very clear “J”) finds very difficult to do. By allowing the work itself to teach me how to do it, I gained something far better than the false security I had tried to create with file folders full of outlines and notes.
When in the despair of a blank period I would rummage through them—usually they were strewn all over the place because I no longer had the delusion that organizing my external space would be mirrored internally—I would find a comment or a snippet of information written years earlier which was still be right on the mark, and it always came by accident.
The affirmation of seeing the core message of the book slowly materializing out the rubble of five years of false starts was more comforting than any master plan I could have come up with.A creative project requires a combination of discipline and looseness. In my fear-based attempts to build a rock-solid structure to support my writing, I had left no space for surprise, no room for the magic of pieces of the story coming together in unexpected ways.
By trying to orchestrate how it would happen, I took the energy and excitement which would invigorate and sustain my efforts out of the equation. Yet, without the discipline of establishing a regular writing time and a commitment to being productive, my efforts would not have gone much beyond wishful thinking.
Trying to strike a balance on the tightrope between will and creativity is ultimately an act of trust, not just that the project will somehow get done, but that by staying in the process you will become who you need to be to complete it.