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The Writer’s Life

So here I sit at 8:09 AM on a Thursday morning wondering what I am going to say today. There are times when I find writing this blog a great joy and there are times where I find it a heavy burden. Those tough times are blessedly few. Today I feel neither; I suppose I’m somewhere between. Sometimes I think well ahead and very occasionally even write posts a day or two in advance. Usually I sit down in the morning knowing what I am going to say, or at least what I am going to start to say. But today I just don’t know.

And yet I want to write. Writing has become such an important discipline in my life. It’s through writing that I do my best thinking and through writing that I do my best application of truth. I may think I know something in my mind, but when I write about it I realize that i had barely known anything at all. And really, writing is becoming my life. Ideally I spend about half of every day writing, focusing time on my blog, on my book and on my 10MillionWords reading project. Put it all together and it’s a writer’s life I’m living at the moment. And I love it.

People often ask me, “How can I become a better writer?” The answer is both obvious and simple. If you want to write better, you need to write more. As with any discipline, some people are born with exceptional talent and for them writing comes easily, naturally and with great skill. But for most of us, writing takes long and hard practice. If you want to be a good writer, you need to write even on those days when you’d rather do anything else, on those days when you feel like you’ve got nothing to say. During the recent Olympics I saw video after video of athletes answering similar questions in their field. Time and time again I heard them say that they got to the top of their game by practicing hard, day in and day out. They practiced hardest on the days when they felt like they had the least to give and on the days when they would rather have been anywhere else doing anything else. It’s not on the easy days and through the joyful practices that an athlete becomes an Olympian. It’s through the hard days, through the gruelling ones. Here is where he learns the character and endurance that will carry him in competition.

If you want to be a good writer, you can’t just write on the days you really feel the urge to write. You need to write through the tough days too, those days when you’d rather just sit and stare out the window. Somehow in those tired days, in those ragged mornings, you find reserves you didn’t know you had and you find a depth in your writing that will surprise you. It’s like those nights you pace the floor with a crying and sick child. It’s in those nights you discover new depths to your love. It’s in those nights that you really become a parent to your child.

Writing is a mentally-exhausting activity. It does not appear that way, I’m sure. The writer sits at his desk and stares at a screen or a page, occasionally typing or scratching out a few words. And yet somehow that process is costly, it is demanding. I am convinced it is the creativity more than the writing that demands such a cost. That process of searching for memories, of staring into space in focused concentration, of trying to link A to B and B to C, somehow it all adds up to something. The mind wanders for a moment and, when reigned back in, seems just a little bit more drained than before.

But then there are the moments, the hard-earned moments, when the words just begin to flow. Clarity has come, light has shone, and suddenly it all makes sense. The hard-fought battle turns in your favor for at least a moment or two. Words come that you can hardly identify as your own. You sit back contended, allowing yourself a moment to read through those words again, dwelling on them, enjoying them.

And then there are more of those moments of waiting for the words to come. Little wonder that the Greeks spoke of the muse. It is easy to imagine that creativity and dryness, the ability to say something profound and the inability to say anything useful at all, are extrinsic. In the moments of joy and pride or the moments of agony and frustration, it is easier to look without than within. And when the words begin to flow again, the temptation is to ascribe such success to that muse. It is no surprise that the Greeks prayed to the muses, sacrificed to the muses, and called to them for help.

But there is no muse. It is all just the ebb and flow of creativity, the never-ending struggle to find just the right word at just the right time; the struggle to take what you know, or what you think you know, and form it into prose. It is easier to fidget, easier to be distracted–to check email or look out the window or think about something unrelated. And yet writing is rewarding, for in the end there are words, a legacy of creativity and ideas, a part of yourself that has moved from the inside to the outside. There is something of yourself to share with the world, or perhaps even just to share with the quiet and hidden pages of a journal. But there are words and those words are a reward in themselves.

When we read the pages of history, we rarely ponder the battles that were routs, the ones where victory came easily. Instead, we remember Gettysburg and Vimy and Normandy, battles where great victory came at great cost. And so it is for the writer–he remembers the days when the words came with great hesitation, with great reluctance, and still he rejoices in the victory, for the words did come at last.

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