The Enormous Virtue of Showing Up

Don't underestimate the power of simply being ready to work. |

It is amazing how well writing will go for you, so long as you just show up. 

How many character insights, how many brilliant plot twists, how many excellent words: They appear on beautiful ordinary days. It doesn't always take a huge effort, or an intervention, or an outside critique.

Sometimes it's just the page and a writer who chose to show up. Nothing flashy.

What does that mean, showing up?

Well, it doesn't mean being a zombie. Propped up and semi-conscious (with or without the questionable diet): Nope, doesn't work. 

I mean being present. With every part of yourself.

You've gotta show up physically.

I know, I know, your body is in a chair, so it's easy to think you can check this one off right away.

But to physically show up, you also need all senses active and ready. Aware of your body.

Because when you're writing, you'll need to rely on sensory detail, on description that is rich and vibrant and feels like a real person experienced it. 

... And that's true whether you're writing a multigenerational saga or an oven manual. We're never allowed to write as if we're robots.

Physical energy is crucial too: It's too easy to be half-asleep, slumped in the chair.

But writing is an exhausting thing--for me, at least. It takes real, physical energy to get words on a page. So eating smart, exercising regularly, sleeping well: That all feeds into a quality writing day.

You have to have all your tools physically ready too--your reference books, all your notes jotted down on scraps of paper, pens that work, batteries in your keyboard, four cups of piping hot coffee. 

You've gotta show up mentally.

You can't write when your mind is full of other things.

It's easy to lose the battle here. To get swept into a rant, instead of into writing. To fall down a rabbit hole on the Internet, blinking fuzzily at your computer as you realize three hours have passed. To consider your evening plans all morning long.

Trust me, I get it. And I do it too. SO MANY TIMES.

But it's pretty hard on all my characters. Their precious real estate in my mind is suddenly crowded with ideas that have nothing to do with them. They're pushed into the background, as all that prime thinking goes to other (less important!) things.

Unfocused writing might as well not be writing at all.

It takes a conscious effort to boot out everything but the work itself. It's not something that resolves on its own. 

To get back on track, I have to say--out loud, sometimes--I'm done thinking about that. I'm done trying to come up with the perfect retort that I should have used two nights ago!! This time is for WRITING. And so I'm going to WRITE.

(It sometimes helps to run around your office with your hands in the air as you shout this. Or maybe that's just me. But seriously: it clears the mind.)

Ask yourself, what's getting in the way?

Are you upset about something? Or--and this can be a tricky one--listening to the wrong music? Singing along happily and thinking about driving with all the windows down, and not so much about this fragile scene, these quiet characters.

We have to show up. We have to arrive at the desk with full writer brains.

With memories tingling in our fingertips. With our imaginations brewing carafes of imagery.

Mind sharp. Vocabulary present. All those words raring to go.

You've gotta show up with a whole heart.

This might be the sneakiest no-show of all. Because yes, we can get the sleep we need (or at least the coffee we need), and we can clear our minds of interference.

But it's still possible to hit the draft absently. To be less than our whole selves.

There's no room for emotional insensitivity in a writing life. And emotional darkness is just as dangerous. Bitterness can dampen the real insights we might otherwise offer.

Henri Matisse said, "Hatred, rancor, and the spirit of vengeance are useless baggage to the artist. His road is difficult enough for him to cleanse his soul of everything which could make it more so." 

Isn't that true??

How's your heart doing these days?

I've found that when I let envy fester in my life, when I let a kind of callousness creep in, when I'm actively bitter about something--my writing goes down the tubes.

Yeah, I might muster up some funny sarcasm. Yeah, it might seem like some of the words are sharper. But the core of it, the real goodness of it, is off. 

Even when it's just me writing in my room, just me and all my characters: I have to stay open-hearted, stay sensitive to people.

Aware of human fragility and human strength. Conscious of complexities. Striving for forgiveness--or at least understanding--for the real live people I know.

Showing up with a whole heart means coming at this enterprise with an intent to do good. To build a bridge from this heart to a reader's heart. To build that bridge with words.

Doesn't really work if we're also harboring the emotional equivalent of a bridge bomber. You know what I mean?

We owe it to ourselves, our work, and our readers to keep our hearts clear of all that useless baggage.

This is our commute, my friends. Even if your office is just a few steps away from your bed (or even if you're working in bed!): this is the road we take every day to get to work.

We show up. In our skins and our bones, in our sharpened minds, in our huge hearts.

It's a pretty serious commute, when you think of it like that. It's not a small thing to show up.

Even on the ordinary and average days: That's enormous. 

But I think our calling is worth it, don't you? 

So when writing asks us to show up with our biggest self, let's be up for it this June.