Writing: both soul food and a beach

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Spring break in an oceanfront cottage. Sounds idyllic, right? Once there, though, I stopped writing. That’s not an excuse. Just an explanation for the weeklong gap in posts.

The road to the beach was paved with good intentions. Here’s mine:

  • Read seven novels
  • Type on my laptop
  • Compose a story the old-fashioned way — by hand in a composition notebook.

I fell short. Very short. Here’s why:

  • Too little sunshine to do any beach reading
  • Too much rain to spend time outdoors
  • Two housemates with a steady TV habit.

To me, vacation is all about cutting the cord — to news, to media, to technology-based sensory input. Outside, nature’s 24/7 reality show —  waves crashing on the shore — was the dictionary definition of relaxation, the ocean surf the ultimate white noise and a constantly changing yet restful image. TV couldn’t compare.

Those housemates weren’t writers. Neither were they Readers with a capital R. They had little interest in technology, poked fun at my “fancy phone,” and were satisfied with their old-style flip phones. They were a fun-loving, outgoing couple — the kind you’d enjoy meeting at a party — but incurious. Content with what they already knew, they didn’t need to know more. They mostly wanted to be entertained.

In this environment, writer’s block would have been a blessing. I could have given up, acknowledged that I would create nothing meaningful, and spent the rest of the week being only in the moment, taking my enjoyment as they did. I could have stepped outside of my head.

Instead, my brain was still firing, but those ideas kept slamming into cinder block, a solid wall of constant distractions. On impact, they would scatter, leaving me flailing for useless bits. My open laptop showed a blank page. I could feel someone peering over my shoulder. “Whatcha doin’? Writin’?”

Sometimes it’s better to say absolutely nothing.

I waited a decent interval so as not to seem rude. Then I closed my laptop, carried it downstairs to a covered porch, and sat down at a picnic table overlooking the sea. Still, I couldn’t concentrate. My mind failed to follow through on any of those fragmentary ideas. I felt adrift.

Like most writers, I know my sore spots, know what my optimal conditions are. Absolute silence. No human presence nearby. An environment so familiar as to be practically dull. Since all three were impossible, I gave up, followed the drift, sank down into anger, strong as the tide.

I was frustrated by my housemates’ habits, by my lack of productivity.  It was obvious I was trying to concentrate. So why did they go out of their way to break my focus?

I shut my eyes. Breathed in and out. Slowed my thoughts. The shhhhhh of the surf was like a mother soothing a cranky toddler. Once I stopped being angry, clarity surfaced.

Writing is an act of creation. Watching TV is an act of consumption. It’s much easier to consume than to create. We live in a world where we work hard so we can come home and do nothing. Relaxation equals parking ourselves in front of a flat screen with hundreds of digital channels. But TV will always leave you hungry for more. You can never watch enough to feel full.

The writer’s life is different. Spend an hour or two, or half a day or a week or a portion of every single day writing, and not only will you produce something, you’ll feel satiated. Satisfied. Writing, creating, feeds the soul.

In her book “Beginnings, Middles and Ends,” Nancy Kress describes the writing habits of the prolific science fiction/fantasy author Gene Wolfe. According to Kress, Wolfe won’t let himself absorb content, be it TV, books, newspapers, radio, internet, etc., unless he writes every day. The longest he’s been able to go content-free is four days.

If that had been the rule in my seaside rental, I would have done a lot more writing and the TV would have been out of reach of my housemates.

When I came home I was asked again and again, How was your vacation? Do you feel relaxed? Outside, I smiled and nodded. Inside, I shook my head.

If a vacation is something that rejuvenates you, then I’m on vacation every day of my life. I like what I do for a living and who I meet while I’m doing it. I’m in community with others who want to grow, who read books, magazines, newspapers, websites. They take in the world, are curious about what they find, and go digging for more. These thoughtful, open-minded, questioning people enrich my life and are enriched by others. I usually take their personal qualities for granted. But once I went on vacation, I was glad to come home to my tribe.

Beginning writers are often told to read as much as possible because that’s where they’ll learn the fine points of the craft. But as writers, we also need to surround ourselves with people who create because that’s where we’ll find inspiration. 

If you’re content with the content beamed into your home, regardless of whether it comes through your TV screen or your computer screen, you’ll stay on the couch forever. Artists — in any field — are dissatisfied with the status quo, with the content that surrounds them.

Every story begins in a situation of stasis. That’s where you are right now if you’re struggling to begin a regular practice of writing. But no story moves forward without change.

You have to seek out and surround yourself with people who are driven to produce their own content, whether it’s writing, music, dance, art, anything. Talk about your art and craft. Analyze it, take it apart, then put it back together again. Do it with people who understand the act of creation and choose the artful life over the consumer life. 

You don’t have to move into an artist’s colony or abandon your possessions and hit the road. Try taking a writing class or join a writer’s group. At the very least, turn off the TV. Instead of watching, try writing.

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