Last night, I was reminded of a lesson I’d already learned, but had forgotten. A newer client and I had been struggling to establish a footing for our relationship. Each time we met, I felt as if we were standing on a major fault line, the earth rumbling beneath us.
This client has always wanted to be a writer, but for some time has found it nearly impossible to write. Or I should say, impossible to write for more than a limited amount of time. At certain moments, an image would flicker in his mind’s eye, or a character he’d never met would introduce itself to him, or a feeling would wash over him and demand expression. At those times, he would sit down to write, and write happily for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. Then, inevitably, he’d reach a moment when he’d think, “I have no idea what comes next.”
That thought would unleash a tidal wave of self-criticism, everything from, “You can’t write; you can never finish anything,” to “You don’t even know how to write a decent sentence! Just give up.”
At that, he would close his notebook and put away his pen, until several days or as much as a week later, when the next alluring image or character would seduce him, and he’d find himself soaring with hope, certain that this time, things would be different.
They never were.
He and I had discussed a number of strategies to help him make some headway with his writing. I’d suggested writing for a delimited amount of time–15 minutes–several times a week, to try to help him gain some momentum with his writing. I narrowed the time to 15 minutes, because for many writers, minimizing the writing window lowers the stakes. Oh, sure, I can write for 15 minutes. No big deal! Then gradually, the 15 minutes can expand into a half hour, the half hour to an hour, etc.
But telling this writer that he could write for only fifteen minutes, or even half an hour, felt like a defeat even before he was out of the starting gate. Instead, he mentioned a book of writing exercises he’d found helpful in the past, and we worked out a plan for him to try his hand at four exercises a week. Writing exercises help lower the stakes for writers struggling with inhibitions, so I was hopeful that this plan might work for him. But there was a novel he’d been wanting to write for the past six months, and within a week, the exercises felt like obstacles to writing his novel.
After several more strategies had offered no relief, I began to worry. Then one evening, the client sent me several examples of his dead-end writing. Though I’d ask to see what he was up to before, allowing me to read anything he’d written was too frightening. Which I understood. After all, I hadn’t been able to help him yet. Why should he trust me with what he’d written?
I read the four or five “dead-end” pieces with increasing excitement. No wonder each time he wrote one of these “inspirations,” he arrived at the “I don’t know what to write next” moments. There wasn’t anything else to write. Each short piece was a fusion of flash fiction and prose poetry, a small jewel that was already complete. “You can stop beating yourself up immediately,” I told him. “These pieces are already finished. There’s nothing more to write.”
As soon as I’d read these graceful, elegant pieces, I remembered something I’d understand some time ago: some writers struggle because they haven’t yet recognized what I call “their particular breath.” While my client discounted what he had been able to write because they weren’t short stories, his current gift was to write exquisite and poetic short pieces. More important, I learned that you never know when you will make a breakthrough, in a relationship or story. If you remain engaged and in good faith, it will happen. I can almost promise!