A writer I’m working with, who has struggled with writing inhibition, decided he wanted to write every day. So he made a commitment, set up his schedule around writing each morning, went to bed, got up the next day, and began walking toward his writing room. Along the way, he decided he’d dispense with one load of wash–it’s always a good thing to have clean clothes, isn’t it? Once the wash was in, he remembered an important bill he hadn’t paid. And once had his checkbook out, he thought, Why not pay the rest of the bills? Since paying bills is not much fun for anyone, and since this stack of bills was high, he noticed that he had begun to sweat as he wrote check after check. So, once he had stuck the last stamp on the last envelope, he decided he had to take a shower before sitting down to write. He felt too messy to write freely. As he stepped out of the shower, he heard the phone ringing and without thinking, answered it.
I’m exaggerating, of course. But not all that much. What happened to this writer is in no way unusual. Any of us who have anxiety around writing, whether we’re aware of it or not, are clever at postponing. For me it was scrubbing my kitchen lick-the-floor clean, which, of course, involved much more than surfaces. Emptying drawers, wiping down refrigerator shelves, reorganizing cupboards, and scouring around burners became essential factors as well.
One day, I too, decided that I was going to set aside a particular time to write: I promised to be at my desk by 9:00 each weekday morning. And I succeeded, at least at sitting down. But no matter how earnestly I tried to focus, the words wouldn’t come. Instead, my thoughts kept returning to my messy kitchen, the dried food in the sink, the drips of tea on the counter.
Finally I decided that my plan wasn’t working. I simply couldn’t concentrate. I decided to allow myself to return to my kitchen and pick one area to spiff up. I knew if I didn’t set a strict limit, my writing would, once again, be an unfulfilled desire. As I stepped into the kitchen, I looked over at the sink, and decided that I would focus my attention and effort on making it gleam.
First I rinsed away all the bread crumbs and bits of egg from my husband’s and my breakfast. Then I shook the can of Bon Ami several times over the porcelain, and began gently scouring. I rinsed again. Once my sink itself gleamed white, I wiped off the stainless steel faucet and sprayer, grabbed the dish towel and ran it over my handiwork. A final look, and I was satisfied.
Having the intention to clean up only one area allowed me to remain more present to what I was doing than I had ever been in the past, when, frantic to avoid writing, I became a whirlwind of activity, not settling into one moment, and never feeling satisfied. In fact, my anxiety about writing had fused with my dissatisfaction about the state of my kitchen, and I generally ended the morning with a sense of malaise.
Now I was able to sit down at my desk and begin writing. And I have done pretty much the same ever since. If it’s not my kitchen, it’s making my bed, or watering my indoor plants. During the summer, it’s deadheading one area of my perennial bed, or digging in fertilizer around a rose.
Always, I allow myself to focus on only one area to bring up to my standard of neat and clean.
My client discovered that his toilette needed to come before sitting down to write. If he allowed himself to shower and dry off without hurrying, he was able to sit down and begin writing–before putting in a machine-load of laundry or paying bills or answering the telephone.
Enriching our relationship with writing means discovering what allows us to feel balanced and safe enough to begin putting words on the page. We can create a context within which writing happens. One of the ways to do this is to explore what we need to do to prepare, not over prepare, to sit down and write. For one writer, preparing might be steeping a full-bodied cup of Assam tea. For another, it could be a 20-minute meditation. For yet another, a minute or two of jumping-jacks.
Each of us is unique, and it is up to each of us to discover what it is we need, to give ourself permission to write.