Let the Work Do Its Work

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My computer hums on my lap. Next to me, my phone buzzes, and Twyla Tharp’s book on “the creative habit” sits with my glass of wine on the side table.

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Behind me is the big window with the tree in full leaf. Beneath the window is the bookshelf stuffed to overflowing with all the books I’m unable to stop pretending I’ll eventually get to read, the best of the best that have stayed with me for reasons mysterious and intentional.

Though life is busy and full of wonderful thinking, I worry what I have to share this week isn’t very interesting.

“To the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place,” as Rilke said. And what writing well really takes is the ability to ignore the doubts and press on in describing the objects that surround us, for they hold our dreams and our truest selves.

DSC_0005To write well, we must struggle, and not least of all because we believe we have to know what we’re doing. And we think that to know what to do, we have to ensure we have all the right conditions perfectly lined up, when really all we need is to look at the space before us and see in it what’s really true. If we can merely do that well, then we apply the right effort and we succeed. Writing well could become inevitable if only we’d stop trying so hard to write well.

Ah, but knowing what’s really true requires really seeing, and this is what we need above all else.

Once we commit—and I don’t pass this off lightly—then we must look hard enough into the story of our lives that’s contained in these objects around us and consider these the relevant props in our current situation.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Illustration from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

A computer. A phone. A book on creativity. A glass of wine. A table. A window. A bookshelf full of books.

What do these tell you? Can I describe them so it’s clear, so that you can assess what you need to understand about my life from these clues?

Collectively, they may signify a life lived in dedication to the freedom books offer.

On Saturday, I posted a status update on Facebook about how it can feel working on a book I believe could help many people heal. It’s always the author’s healing journey first, yet most of us who write have trouble because we’re broken and blocked by pain and resentment. We can seem fine day to day, but as soon as things get challenging, we cramp up and clamp down. The books on writing don’t often say we have to be healed first to write well and true about ourselves. And so that’s what I’ve chosen to say, believing our words must first be for us but once they’ve healed us, they must be fully matured and become universal, not so dedicated to our own welfare.

DSC_0009This is why my room matters today. And what’s here with me matters—because learning to write well is what I’m doing here while my family pursues other things downstairs. I’m here to face the truth of myself and my dreams and many weaknesses, in hopes it will heal me further and I might grow to see my life more broadly, more universally, that it might be more useful and inspiring. A simple story of a man typing out words to show the things he keeps for this work he pursues, as Annie Dillard says, trying to make all the necessary efforts to become a sail to catch the solar wind.

If we do it right, that is, if we do it daily, this work changes us. And that changes everything. The way I live, and the way I think of myself and all my relationships has grown by my picking up these props for the words I pursue.

They show that I’ve dedicated myself to achieving this big dream of being free. And yet I’m confident that if I can continue, the objects and even the words themselves won’t be so important in the end. For the true benefit will be something else entirely….

“The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price…But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought…I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.” – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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19 thoughts on “Let the Work Do Its Work”

  1. “Writing well could become inevitable if only we’d stop trying so hard to write well.” ….my heart lesson for the week! I continually forget that God has already put in me what I need, to do what He has given me to do.

    1. It’s strange to realize with real humility that we do write well once we stop trying to. It’s a hard secret to bear. But what lies ahead is too exciting to worry about what lies behind… Thanks for your friendship, Jan!

  2. how about ‘soular’ wind? annie would dig it! i never dreamed writing starts out with oneself needing to be healed. but you’ve known this for a long time. i haven’t read that clue in my favorite books about writing, mr. king and miss lamott. only from mr. silva…who taught you?

    1. I don’t know. But forgiveness of the people I love has been a long time coming. Accepting them for who they are helped me do the same for myself, regardless of how others feel about me. And that helped me put Gods opinion first. His love enabled me to love. And I guess I felt that love first in books.

  3. “The books on writing don’t often say we have to be healed first to write well and true about ourselves. And so that’s what I’ve chosen to say, believing our words must first be for us but once they’ve healed us, they must be fully matured and become universal, not so dedicated to our own welfare.”

    These words echo what I’ve known in my heart for a while now. The process of writing (and writing truthfully) taught me that. But I never could have put the thought into the beautiful words you did. Thanks for the reminder today – it was a blessing!

    1. Thanks, Ashlee. My suspicion is, we all know this deep down. Some of us set out looking for it, others come upon it later. But doesn’t the goal of healing always become a motivator when we realize how far from healed we are? I’d hope most long-term writers find that out eventually. The process seems to reveal my deficiencies and set me straight the longer I stay after them… Thanks for the consistent encouragement to keep on!

  4. I’m not sure there are many higher callings than being entrusted with writing down the words. The stories. Whether they be real or imagined, they all begin within the heart. They all begin with words first spoken to us. and how those words impacted us. Scarred us. Built us up or tore us down. Words can be weapons or they can be the sweetest gift ever given. Words hold mysterious power and we must choose wisely what we do with them. And it’s not easy, never easy, to speak from the heart. Sometimes it’s scary and crazy and you know it’s probably not going to end well, but it’s a risk you have to take. The written word can be erased, forgotten perhaps, but the place from whence it came remains, and must be cared for and loved. Sometimes you need to put the words away for awhile. Sometimes they retreat and refuse to be given voice. But we know they’re there, waiting. And when we are ready, when the time is right and God gives the nod, the words will come again, and we will share them with those who want to listen. So we press on, because there is no other choice, not really. To give up is to refuse the gift we’ve already accepted. And I think the tag says, “No returns…”

    1. This is beautiful, Cathy. “The words will come again, and we will share them with those who want to listen.” How often de we forget that? It’s so reassuring to know God holds all the words and we merely try to avail ourselves of him and his timing. Stay in the flow, in the daily work, and let the process do its work. That’s what matters. The words that should come will come when we let them.

      And won’t that make us be ever more submissive pens in his hand–emptied of our own ink and filled with him?

    2. I think that’s why I keep blogging. Even when I think I have nothing to say, I often find I do. Whether anyone reads those words really doesn’t matter. My job is to let them have the freedom they need to be found.
      I dunno. Waxing poetic today. Maybe too much sun and swizzle. It’s a holiday here. :)

    3. Not at all. Words are alive. The best ones do the best work. Love you, my friend. Thanks for sharing.

  5. please, cathy west, continue blogging. the world needs you. and never stop sunning and swizzling. it’s good for you :-)
    suzee B

    1. Haha, Suzee, no fear. Swizzle runs in my blood. :) Except my son has us on this health kick now, so I may have to cut back … you can pray for me. :)

  6. Thank you for your powerful words Mick. As writers there are so many times when we doubt and wonder and try to write better and in the process often forget just to trust God and write. I’ve been there.

  7. “Fully matured,” the healing as done and “rested,” maybe as “tested,” as healing can be, and with enough emotional distance for us to be able to shape it into a universal truth or story, and with us as omniscient authors, emptied of our own ink and filled with his. Yes.
    Murray Bowen, one of the early Family Therapists, talked much about emotional separation and differentiation: this is me, that is you; I can come alongside to empathize, yet not be so dragged in as to only see your pain (which might also be by my own ongoing anguish) or, conversely, try to force my singular statement or view on you, in an artificial way.
    When we can be separated and individuated from our characters, when we can let the work do it’s work, then we’re ready to write a mature work. If the healing process is still hanging us up, maybe best to finish the work badly and set it aside for “later.” Or burn it, as was the case with me. If I cannot stand far enough outside my story to see it whole, experience a tolerable level of occasional pain, perhaps, yet not be so torn apart emotionally that I can’t really work, I’m not ready to help lead anyone else out of that woods.
    So they say to therapists: if you can’t stand outside and dispationately comment, you are not ready to do that bit of work. And which of you sees her/himself as something other than as a wise counselor? Yes to all of the previous comments. Thanks for saying what needed to be said

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