The writing life requires courage…It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself.
– Dani Shapiro
What we don’t know can and does hurt us.
The old saying was never true. We hurt when we’re ignorant, and so does everyone else. In fact, I wonder if ignorance is the main reason we experience so much pain in this life. Not knowing can be excruciating.
What writers don’t know torments them so they go out and find answers. Having worked with and known hundreds by now, I’ve found that curiosity is one of their defining characteristics. They’re even curious about things most people never think about–what instinct means, how stock markets work, what the average temperature in Spain has to do with their tradition of siestas. Who cares? Writers do.
And my theory about this is that they’re precocious children who never quite grew up and are also compensating for at least a somewhat miserable childhood. Pain forces us into self-distraction and we’re shaped by our fears at least as much as our loves.
However, they do mostly realize the struggle this causes them and those they love. Who doesn’t realize this writing life is hard work? Mostly, those not doing it.
Who doesn’t realize the contributions writers make to the world? Mainly, only those not paying for that contribution.
Yet who is currently writing the novel, the screenplay, the enhanced reality game that will remind us of our shared humanity? Who is working on the blockbuster that will capture our imaginations and inspire us to remember the sick and needy? Who is writing the story that will bring us back to the dream we had as children of saving the world before we grew too afraid of scarcity and other’s opinions?
At this very moment, a writer is working those stories out.
Writers are the ones best enabled to inspire the world because they’ve done the hard work of thinking. And above all, in their curiosity and ambition, they need to both push themselves to seek out the pain in their experience, and go easy on themselves to ensure they can (and want to) continue. Every writer requires a delicate balance of determination and grace. Those who don’t write regularly will discount, discredit and dismiss it (an unfortunate side effect of not thinking very hard or very regularly), but working with words to balance truth and strong interest, entertainment and education, a certain skillfulness is required.
And the work keeps writers humble. There’s no calculating the galaxies of experience we’ll never know, but even what we do know is only one person’s experience. Writers have no need to spout opinions as facts or present one-sided arguments as truth. They’ve had to discard biases that blind the less-devoted, and make out the hazy picture of the uncomfortable truth that offends everyone equally in its unexpected, brilliant burn. The writer is basically a risk-taker who wouldn’t quit.
And what will it take to reach the finish line? Maybe primarily, the willingness to risk much, to risk everything if necessary. That necessity to risk is why writing takes courage above all else. Risking pain to seek the deeper truths about yourself and life, and risking sharing what you know. Risking paying close attention when you experience pain or fear, knowing it means you’ve been chosen to understand, express and explain this particular view of it best, and to give the universal aspects specific dimension.
Finishing any work of writing will take risking running toward suffering, and living with the small, seemingly insignificant frustrations, and bearing them patiently so you know how others feel, how difficult it is to feel useful, worthy or even up for the task. It takes risking facing deep feelings of insufficiency, uncertainty, and unacknowledged anxieties and doubt.
You’ll eventually wonder if you’re getting too old and maybe you missed your chance. And even after all that, you may have to risk sharing the childhood wounds you endured, the anger and guilt. And sure, there are amazing discoveries and truly life-enriching parts. But when you risk giving dimension to your emotions and conveying the context to understand its terrifying bigness or its embarrassing smallness, you risk being known and found out for your messy life, your silliness, your ignorance.
People will know you and be able to use that information. You’ll be found out.
But you’ll also be free of it. You’ll have confessed it and released it into the world, and it will be apart from you rather than a part that once controlled you through fear. That’s the thing about pain. While it’s hidden, pain controls us. When it’s brought to light, pain is seen as what it is–common, ordinary, and powerless.
Pain can’t always be changed. It can’t be avoided. But it can be helped. It can be resolved by being exposed. It can stop animating and controlling you. And it can stop being so mean and overwhelming.
When we risk sharing our pain, we find we’re never alone.
Why do we get distracted so easily from realizing this is what writing is all about? Whatever else it is, writing at its core is the way out of the universal fears specific to these vulnerable, frail lives. Writing is how to get at the truth about life that makes us all a part of something larger than ourselves. It’s the experience of remembering and maybe finally knowing beyond our limited experience that we’re okay and so is everyone else. It’s connecting and reminding and extinguishing the massive power pain always has over us–until we face it, name it, and disarm it.
Seek out your pain unafraid today. Write it and speak it in words that nail it down, give it form. And see if it doesn’t free you and inspire you to keep writing to free others.
There’s a higher purpose in all of this, you know?