On Showing Up

The other day, I was talking with a friend about showing up.

Just past blue Monday, in a frigid winter that’s kept us inside for days, some mornings the best that you can do is stumble over to your desk, sit there, and wait.

Not for the green thrust of spring.

Not even for epiphanies.

Nor for any other quick and brilliant growth.

Just, you know, for slight movement. For those few, faint glimmers of light promised by our slowly turning earth.

Because they are promised. They are possible.

Time passes, and if you’re positioned correctly, pen in hand, you’ll catch them.

I’ve been showing up all week.

Which is notable because I haven’t been for a little while.

Busy with all my other irons in the fire – coaching, freelance writing, teaching, and the rest of life – I’ve turned my focus away from my own creative work for the past few months.

But this week, along with my students, I’ve been reading the draft of the novel that I want to finish, and I’ve been considering how important it is, this action of simply showing up.

Each morning, I’ve begun in bed, pencil, notebook and novel draft in hand. Despite resistances, despite uncertainty, self-consciousness, internal criticisms, doubt.

All you need to do is read, I’ve coached myself, knowing what would happen.

That I’d end up taking notes, drawing question marks in the margins, jotting down ideas for how I can potentially make the thing better, feeling my creative self attracted to its puzzle.

I started the week with hope for the thing. That it matched what I saw in my head.

Of course it didn’t.

There’s a character who needs to be excised, a plot element to be more clearly braided in, heavy backstory that should be cut, and other critiques.

On Monday, the task felt impossible, heavy, too much. But I persisted and by nighttime, when I went to bed to read (Sputnik’s Children by Terri Favro), I instead picked up my journal. My head, post-self-criticism, had started turning the thing over, prodding at its open soil.

This morning, I finished reading my draft, and I feel good.

The middle needs reworking and the ending has to be lobbed off, the last chapters redone.

But I’ve got fourteen pages of notes, and I’m ready to move forward into the next stage, which, of course, carries its own anxieties. To continue making (as I call the stumble-to-the-desk, quoting the I Ching) energetic progress towards the good.

But you know what helps?

Not being alone.

I am aware that one of my students gets up at 5 a.m. to write before she heads off to her day job. Another writes in the evenings, after putting in a full day at the office. Both of them, I’m sure, have to regularly negotiate that desire to hit snooze, each in their own way, but they remain committed, because they know.

Like I know.

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time,” writes Mary Oliver.

The thing that stops so many is this myth that the showing up must always produce brilliance, a page flung from the typewriter to spin through the air towards publication and fame.

That the words we put down on the page must always be good.

Another way of putting it, I suppose, is that there’s a fear that we will disappoint ourselves, that we’ll break our own hearts with the limitation of our language, the inability to press our deepest beliefs, our truest stories, into text.

And you know what? We probably will.

But that’s the choice, isn’t it? To injure ourselves by not writing or, at least, to try. To answer the creative call, and, simultaneously, carry the pain of failing, then fail again, and fail better.

There was a moment this week, reading, when the vision of what I want for this novel came swarming up in my head. I saw it, the whole brilliant story. For a moment, I held it there. Like a beacon. A far-off, brilliant star.

I know I won’t get there. Not totally.

But it’s something to reach for – with energy, with power – knowing that at least in the effort to attain, I will let my feet slip from the earth, I will lift ever so slightly into flight.

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