When people think of writing, a common image is of a clean desk, a typewriter, and a sheet of pristine paper.
Or it is of a person sitting at a computer, quietly typing away.
Or it is of a person hunched over a desk, scribbling lines into a notebook.
Most people do not imagine a semi-naked, dirty-haired figure standing at the mouth of a cave, hesitantly calling out, “Hello?”
For years. Years. I mean, for decades, I got caught up at the mouth of the cave and I kept turning away. I felt wrong, not smart enough, not ready to move forward. I didn’t even know what truth meant. I couldn’t see it. I just had this sense it was in there, somewhere, if only I was prepared enough to go after it. If only I was good enough. Ready enough. I was waiting for the lift of inspiration, the clean rush of I got this. Instead, what I felt was uncertainty and fear and a sense that I really had nothing of worth to write even though my whole being ached to create.
For a caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, it digests itself, using enzymes triggered by hormones.
During the metamorphis process, the imaginal cells inside the caterpillar are what turn into antennae, wings, eyes and other things that make a butterfly a butterfly. The imaginal cells. Truly. Those are a thing. I think they are in us, too. I think there are cells that are aching to be transformed into something else.
There is no structural similarity between a caterpillar and a butterfly.
I am not the same person I was before I wrote You Don’t Look Adopted. I stood at the mouth of the cave and I went in. At times it felt as though my body were feeding on itself. Writing a book was wonderful and exhilarating and grounding and terrifying and strange. It often felt as if I were walking across a high wire. My coach Katie Peuvrelle suggested I imagine the wire was on the ground. That made me braver. There was no fall in my future. Just a string across the ground that I was traversing. One step at a time. One word at a time. One letter at a time. Why was I so afraid of printed words on a page? The words were made of ink; the paper was made of wood pulp.
I was just telling a story using man-made materials and hand movements.
When Terry Gross interviewed Spike Lee, she asked him about his habit of repeating lines as Mars Blackmon in She’s Gotta Have It, most famously, “Please baby pleasebaby please baby, baby baby please!” Spike Lee burst out laughing. “I couldn’t remember my next line!” he told her. What was conceived of as art and creation was actually a person having no idea what to do next. What was seen as art was the gap between not knowing and knowing.
Just because you walk into the cave of creativity doesn’t mean you have a plan. It doesn’t mean you know you have something of value to say. It means you walked into the cave and so now it’s time to make stuff up and see what happens next. This, when you are a child, is called play.
One of my favorite songs from the 1980s is Greg Kihn’s The Break-Up Song:
We had broken up for good just an hour before
Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah-ah, aaah
And now I’m staring at the bodies
As they’re dancing ‘cross the floor
Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah-ah, aaah
I love singing along with the ahs. And, guess what! I heard Greg Kihn say that he sang “ah” because he didn’t have the lyrics filled in yet. One of my all-time favorite songs is full of not-knowing! And it works! The not-knowing becomes a knowing.
Ask Donald Barthelme.
There is a way of meditating where you focus on the gap between words. The beauty and space and holy moments are in not the words themselves that someone sweated to get down on paper, but on the doorway created in the space between.
Part of metamorphosing from a caterpiller into a butterfly involves the digestion of cells in the larva’s muscles, gut, and salivary glands in an act of re-creation to another form of being.
This is writing. It’s messy, messy business. You feed on your old self in the act of creating a new self. A caterpillar doesn’t sit down and decide when it’s time to do what it has to do. The body of the caterpillar decides when it is time to move forward, and the same is true, in all likelihood, for you. You may not want to write now. You may have kids at home, a demanding job, a brain that doesn’t focus, the desire but not the will, but your body may take the wheel and start the process, and suddenty, it’s time to write even though you are pretty sure you have nothing to say, even though you would really rather be in bed, sleeping, than sitting at your desk squeaking out one work after another.
You think writing is supposed to feel good? You think you’re supposed to feel presentable all the time? Clearly, if writing were nothing but torture, there would only be tiny libraries as people would find other, more soul-enriching ways to express themselves, and one reason so many people say they think they have a book in them and then die saying the same thing is because writing, generally, is work. Writing can feel like jumping off a cliff with no guarantee there will be some sort of netting to catch you. It can be like stepping on the stage in front of an invisible audience with no real plan of what you are going to say. It can be like calling in sick to a job that pays so you can draw invisible castles in the air. I mean, why would a sane person do that?
Because writing is a form of prayer. It is the ancient cave dweller leaving a handprint on the stone wall. It is Whitman’s yawp. It is a way of breathing, of living, of walking on the earth. You don’t have to write to live a good life, but if there is a voice crying out to speak on paper, a voice asking to be used and heard, then that just may be part of your job as a person on this planet. It’s not that you are a writer, just as it’s not that you are a breather or an eater. It’s that you write just as you breathe and eat. You do it because your body and mind ask, tell, you to do it. You do it because you can.
Am I a good eater? Am I a good breather? Is that the point? To survive I must eat. I must breathe. I believe the same is true for writing. I would love to write well. I would love to eat well, breathe well, but the fact of the matter is that life moves quickly and sometimes it’s not about how well you do something, but just that you do it. You do it with your heart in your mouth and you pray for beauty and clarity and understanding, but, always, always, you and your life and your writing are a work in progress. You just keep at it. It’s that you are doing it. That’s where the miracle lies. Not in the quality of the work, but in your dedication to the craft of being you.
Write with me so we can disintegrate together.
I’ll see you on the other side. When we are winged.
If you are interested in working with me, check this out: