Writing to Decide, Deciding to Write

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Here I am again, trying to write another first draft.

Every time I start, I stop. Sometimes it’s because I get interrupted. Lately, it’s because something outrageous or amazing or just plain confounding has happened in the world, and I think, Oh, I can’t write about the thing I was going to write about; I have so many thoughts about the new thing, I need to write about that instead. And the new thing is connected to the other thing—oh, and the thing before that, too, and I have all these thoughts and ideas and memories and stories, but now they’re all tangled up like a giant hairball, and by the time I think I’ve finally found the end of a hair to tug free from the hairball in hopes of untangling the mess, another new thing happens, and I lose the bit I was hanging on to and my thoughts get even more tangled, and—

And I’ve been here before, waiting for a pause, waiting for the right time, for enough time, for the right topic, waiting for the hairball to untangle itself and tell me what I’m supposed to do.

Today, I realized—I admitted—that I’ve been in this place for almost a year.

It’s not just the stress of the pandemic, it’s not exactly the chaos and uncertainty that have beleaguered us this past year. It’s more like…it’s maybe because…or possibly from…

In her book, The Soul-Sourced Entrepreneur, Christine Kane says, “Technically, ‘to wait’ is a verb. But really, it just keeps you frozen in place in a very un-verb-like way. When you wait, you become an object waiting for a subject to come along and convince you to move.”

My uncertainty (anxiety? fear?) that what I’m writing about is the wrong thing, or that I’m already too late and so should shift to the next idea, the next problem to solve, the next opinion I could or should express—those are all “waiting,” masquerading as logical reasons for inaction.

All the reasons I have for not untangling the hairball and getting something coherent down on the page sound like excuses, especially to my Inner Calvinist, who is always certain I am shirking my duties. She’s partly right; I have been avoiding and procrastinating—I have been waiting—but the real question is Why?

Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) says that “If you can write a question, you can answer it,” so I ask myself: What am I waiting for?

I am reluctant to decide. I resist committing to a specific topic or a particular path. My Inner Calvinist condemns me for my resistance. She wants certainty; she is certain it is the solution to everything. She is adamant, even when I remind her that creativity requires curiosity and a willingness to make a mess on the page.

She insists that it’s much better to write what my clients want than to create anything of my own, including essays for my newsletter. “Client work” —whether it’s reviewing a manuscript, writing exhibit labels, or guiding someone on their own creative path—comes ready-made with decisions. It’s for an already-defined purpose, there’s a deadline that forces a timeline which in turn forces a decision (it must be done by Thursday, so I must work on it today), I know how to do the work, and there’s tangible proof of its value.

She tosses in time anxiety, too. Do I really have enough time to write this entire thing now? What if it takes too long and we run out of time to do the client work (not to mention the house work and other tasks she nags me about)?

Do I have time to explain why my first reaction to the demonstrations about racial injustice was, “Didn’t we do this already?” Or what about climate change, and the fires, and how standing in line for my first Covid vaccination reminded me of the first line I remember standing in, which was for the brand-new polio vaccine when I was five, and of the lines I stood in at my local polling place, back when we voted in person instead of by mail?Should I point out that I did all that work about civil rights and women’s rights and even helped organize the very first Earth Day, and that my first published work was a poem I wrote when I was ten years old as an assignment for one of the first Outdoor Ed programs in the United States, and that I thought that what I did made a difference, helped the world be a better place, and that it isn’t my fault that everything isn’t perfect? And why I think the phrase “That’s a first-world problem” is stupid?

Is there enough time to explain my gaffe at Penn Center on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, caused by my assumption that the women working there knew the story of Juliette Lowe and Girls Scouts and that when I said “Brownies,” I was talking about that ridiculous story we teach the 7-year-old girls to explain why they’re called “Brownies” (which are Celtic wee folk) and was not a racial slur? And that I was so mortified when I realized that I had clearly offended them, I fled, and when I figured out days later that my assumption they’d know the story because the camp is spitting distance from Savannah, Georgia, where Lowe was from and where she started the first troop, was wrong—I was still too mortified to go back and explain? And is that story about racial injustice (endemic or otherwise) or about the challenges of communication?

How do I know? How do I decide? In my indecision, I jump like a manic flea from idea to idea, story to story. It feels like I can’t write fast enough to keep up or long enough to find my way through the tangle of my thoughts and feelings.

But a curious thing happens when I keep writing.The act of writing, physical and tangible, changes me. Pencil pushing graphite onto the smooth surface of scrap paper, pen trailing ink across the nubby texture of my journal, fingers tapping their way across the keyboard: words appear, sentences begin to sort themselves out. Inner Calvinist recedes; my breathing slows like a kind of meditation. Insight and understanding emerge gradually, like a winter sunrise or abruptly, like a thunderclap in a clear sky.

I decide, slowly, consciously, deliberately. I decide, immediately, suddenly, by instinct. Either way, I decide. I decide to write, to spend the time, however much time it takes. I decide to tug at the hairball and to keep tugging, even if what pulls free makes me look foolish or vulnerable or ignorant.

Deciding is my superpower.

It’s yours, too.

Keep writing –Judy