My fight with the blank slate
My father and I took a walk before I moved away from Northern Michigan, and he got on the subject of my writing at the local paper.
“Writing was never something that was easy for me like it is for you,” he said.
Oh, it’s not easy at all.
That surprised him. He seemed to think because I write articles at a newspaper, I found writing to be an easy endeavor.
Granted, writing isn’t as taxing as any physical labor. But it’s the challenge of trying to connect to an audience that’s engaged. It’s finding the right combination of endless possible words to convey the idea to a complete stranger. You don’t often meet your reader, but you have to share a common bond of experience with them.
I’ve always seen my writing process as akin to long-distance running. I know I should start, but I’m reluctant because I know of the struggles I’ll face once I begin.
When I finally strap on my shoes and stretch, I start pounding the words out like my feet hitting the pavement. Sometimes everything is working well, other times I’m struggling to keep up the pace. I have to fix my breathing, fix my thoughts. Sometimes my muscles ache, sometimes my mind goes numb.
It feels like torture, until I get to the end, when I cool down and look back over what I’ve done, stretching and editing.
It’s that feeling of accomplishment that makes me come back. The idea that it might not be my best, but it was pretty damn good today.
Many experienced runners say they can tap into this “runner’s high” mode where they push through the pain and torture, and all they feel as they run is the constant calm. I imagine that there’s a similar “writer’s high” where if I keep at it, eventually the words flow easier, the thoughts organize with more clarity, and I’m not stuck staring at a blank screen.
I tried to explain this to my father, and while I think he understood the meaning, he may not have grasped the feeling.
My mind drifted back to this yesterday, after I heard that Roger Ebert passed. I suddenly dived into his writing, feeling a new connection to a man who enjoyed the pleasures of life, faced struggles, and understood the magic of a movie.
He’s often quoted as writing “When I’m writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be.”
In context, he suffered from health problems during the last stages of his life. But writing still served as a way for him to express and connect to others.
Obviously this is after he had a long, successful career as a journalist, essayist and writer.
I wondered if he ever struggled with finding the right composition like I do when he was younger. From what I read of him, it doesn’t seem like it.
In the Los Angeles Times obituary by John Horn and Valerie J. Nelson (here’s the link http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-roger-ebert-20130405,2669,3811548,full.story) they note his spectacular skill.
“His writing ease amazed and annoyed colleagues. While others agonized, he was known to stroll into the office half an hour before deadline, tell some jokes, then pound out his piece.”
Maybe his experience let him access a writer’s high, that he could turn on with a whim.
I’ve never been a person to say that I want to become a certain kind of writer. I believe that develops over time in its own way. But there’s one trait I would love to adopt, it’s Ebert’s calm and skillful approach to writing.
Thanks for the inspiration Roger.