Fingers, Reacquaint Yourselves with Keyboard

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I don’t know how to explain my absence from this blog during the last part of 2009, but I do know that it wasn’t because I lacked material, and it wasn’t because I didn’t want to write.

Since I don’t fully know the answer to the why question, let’s just move on. It’s 2010 now, and the things I learned in 2009 and the ways I’ve grown as a person are filling me with a new desire to dust off my keyboard and get back to work. Because let’s face it, writing is work.

Most of the lessons I’ve learned the past year have been word- or writing-related. In the spirit of year-end/year-beginning lists, here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

1. If you can say something in fewer words, do it. As my friend Matt said to me one time when we were talking about communication: “I like short sentences. They’re punchy.” If I can take his answer a step further, often one wise sentence has a greater impact than whole pages of floweriness.

2. Inspiration to write comes and goes. Sometimes you just have to do it, even if you don’t feel like it. (Thanks Pam, for showing me a December’s worth of examples of how sluggish Novembers can be overcome.)

3. Words connect people. This might sound basic — but this year I looked around me and discovered that many of the people I care for and admire most — whether from college, church, work, or even this blog — had become dear to me through the beauty of shared ideas in writing, reading or conversation — or all three. It’s something I don’t want to forget, and I hope I can challenge all of you to express gratitude for your fellow word-loving friends and for the ways words connect us.

4. Perfectionism is a serious hindrance to writing. In her guide to life and writing, “Bird by Bird,” Anne Lamott stresses the importance of giving oneself permission to write the “shitty first draft.” Perfectionism, she said, is like a muscle’s defensive reaction to protect the site of an old wound. In writing, it doesn’t work to let that guardedness mask “the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliation suffered in both — to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out,” because if we do that, “those wounds never have a chance to heal,” and we’ll be “writing in tight, worried ways.” Perfectionism is the mistaken belief that I have to do everything right in order to be accepted, like I believe there’s a judge somewhere waiting to pounce if I do things wrong— or maybe even worse, like I fear no one will notice what I write at all. In writing, there is no real “right” — there’s just the doing of it and the learning to do it better next time. So if I let myself be held back by perfectionism, I’ll never improve.

5. Just recently, the book “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies,” by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, reminded me of the importance of loving words for their own sake. One of my favorite chapters in the book was called “Love the Long Sentence.” This may seem to contradict the first item on my list, about using fewer words, but nevertheless, there often is great satisfaction both in writing and reading long sentences. McEntyre makes the following argument for the long sentence:

No doubt many long sentences need to be cut up into more digestible pieces; some are mere verbal self-indulgence; some are simply “rabbiting on,” as my British friend puts it – betokening a rather boorish inability to recognize when the audience has had enough of a good thing; some are the explanatory overkill of condescending pedants. But some long sentences take us on journeys worth making from the beginning of an idea through its permutations and possibilities, gathering modification, nuance, definition, and direction as it goes. Long sentences ask us to dwell in a thought rather than come to the point. They invite us to relax into a slow, syntactical tour, like wandering the halls of a museum, rather than hastening on to the verb, the object, and out the door.


As a journalist, I am not used to appreciating the long sentence as its own living entity. But I like the idea of being an art lover on a slow tour through a winding gallery, even if it’s just for an occasional visit. In this next year, I want to take some time during which I don’t feel the need to chop, condense and dissect sentences, even though I’ll still have to have a machete handy for my editing job.

6. This may be the most personal of all my observations tonight, and it comes as a culmination of things I began to learn in 2008, but the lessons were more fully solidified in 2009. I’ve found there is something qualitatively different about the inner life of a writer than for someone who does not have that aptitude. I am not necessarily referring only to vocational writers, and I’m not sure I can really speak for all writers, because I have not been in everyone else’s shoes. But for at least a half dozen of my writer friends, and definitely for myself, there is a deep well of thought and another level of feeling and processing that goes on within our consciousness, and it must be guarded, nurtured and given space in order for us to keep operating in a healthy way. I have found myself at times painfully inadequate to explain this to friends and family: the why of needing time to write, the why of staying at home instead of going to that one fun party, the why of sitting alone just thinking for what might be hours at a time. It’s often in those times I feel most me, and most grateful, and most alive, and most apt to listen to the things God is showing me about myself or about what I’ve seen around me. And, when I’m done, I’ll go back outside in the real world and notice the colors and sounds and faces again.

7. If I have a wish, a desire, a gift to write, but do not use it for the edification of others and to add wisdom to the collective pool, then what is the point of my wish, my desire, my gift? Don’t sit on it, friends! (As a wise person once said, when I point a finger at you, I have three fingers pointed back at myself.)

Those are my thoughts for now. I am praying something I’ve shared tonight will be an encouragement to you. And, if you have follow-up thoughts, whether confirmations or challenges, please feel free to share.


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3 comments:

Pam Elmore said...

Great post, Rachel. Thanks for always challenging and provoking thought with your reflections.

You've hit the nail on the head about perfectionism. Such bondage! I think I need to read that book...

Elizabeth Kool said...

Rachel, thanks so much for the tips! It really helped me realize that my thought life serves a higher purpose, which is to be shared, even if not perfectly. I can't tell you how many times I sit down to type and lack the words because I'm afraid it isn't perfect. Thanks for the encouragement!

Rachel Watson said...

Elizabeth, thanks for commenting! And you're welcome. :)