We think of writing as an activity. Any movie or show you see about writers, you’ll inevitably see some scene where the writer is at their keyboard pounding away, flush-cheeked, glassy-eyed, with a self-satisfied smile dancing on their lips. In reality, though, almost all writing takes place in the space where nothing happens.
Writing is so much more than the act of pen to paper, fingers on keys. Writing is mediation in motion. Writing is walking to the subway station and untangling snarled plot points while our feet hit the pavement. Writing is ears perked in a cafe as we overhear snippets of dialogue. Writing is eureka moments in the shower, or ideas that wake us up in the middle of the night. Writing is a nightmare we had that keeps looping in our head the next day, growing wings, morphing into a story. Writing is staring at a white screen, fingers poised, frozen in place. Writing is reading, is listening, is waiting, is taking in the world.
Sometimes I put projects down for various reasons. Most of what I write are dear little failures. I have too many finished novels in the proverbial bottom drawer to even count. During these times of failure, of surrender, I chastise myself for not taking time to write in the evenings, my writing hour. For not continuing to plug away at something or to find something new to begin. For choosing to read or watch TV instead. I feel defeated in the quiet, dark half of the writing process, like a machine that has stopped working. It takes constant reminders to myself that this time of reading, of watching, of contemplation, of letting the mind rest, is where the best ideas form, or where a deeper understanding of a current work in progress can bloom; sometimes, after spells of this “nothingness”, I can return to a revision with a fresh perspective that injects new life into a project I thought was long gone. That magic revisiting can only happen when time elapses—when you invite the nothingness to spread out and take up space in your writing life.
For a person like me, who prefers to keep busy, whose monkey mind is queen, it’s hard to accept this quietude. And if writing isn’t hard enough, entering the publishing world brings it to a whole new level of excruciating. After all the hours it takes to write a novel, it goes to your agent, and weeks elapse before you hear any feedback; then there are revisions, and more time to wait for your agent’s response; then finally, if you’re lucky, it goes on submission, and you wait agonizing days, weeks, months before hearing from publishers; no, they say, no, no, no; then, if you’re lucky, you get a yes; months pass before you sign a contract, get a check, or receive an editorial letter; finally, you go back to the actual work of editing, which requires months of back-and-forth; then you wait for the book to get published; then much of what follows is still more quiet waiting—waiting for people to notice it or read it, waiting for sales numbers, waiting for the world to respond. And it’s often so much quieter and slow-going than you ever imagined it would be.
I am an impatient person. Waiting is pain. Doing nothing makes me fidget. If I meditate, my mind begins to scream. So these times when I put a project down, or step away from it because I’ve stumbled into uncertainty, they feel like giving up. It takes reminding myself that these times of doing nothing—of staring off in the distance, or commuting to my job, or being present with my children, or cooking dinner, or reading a book—they are all part of writing, too.
I watched the Hulu show Shrill when it came out. Though it was wildly different than the book it was based on by Lindy West, which I liked so very much, and their portrayal of what it’s like to work at a blog made me laugh and laugh, some of my favorite parts about the show were the moments when you could witness the writer Annie’s mind at work. That pool party scene everyone raved about? It was amazing on multiple levels, but what I loved about it was you saw her walking around, observing the world, taking it in. You saw ideas percolating simply without a word of dialogue. You saw revelations spark, that later she went home and wrote furiously about on her keyboard in a scene not unlike the one I described earlier on—laptop open, lips a simper, tap-tap-tapping passionately away. But that pool party scene was the best on-screen representation of the writer mind at work I can remember seeing—and a reminder that so much of writing and brilliant ideas is being open and willing to be present in the world, to listen and watch, to close your laptop or your journal, and instead do nothing—joyfully.