How we do what we do
I’ve been out of town for the past week, helping with preparations for my cousin’s wedding in Oakland, and the whole time I was gone, I had the strangest feeling. It took me a long time to figure out what it was, because I’d never felt it before. Turns out, I missed writing.
No offense to my cousin and her new husband. Those people know how to throw a party, the kind that blows out an amp and a subwoofer. But I missed writing. I missed writing! I know that probably seems like a perfectly normal thing to feel, given that writing is what I do. But the truth is, most of the time, I will do anything to avoid it.
I understand that some people wake up itching to write. They feel as though they somehow aren’t complete unless they’re writing. I have never been one of those people. I have wondered what it’s like to be one of those people. Sometimes I have wondered what it would be like to punch those people. I had coffee with a writer friend a couple of weeks ago, a friend who is working on a cookbook, and she confided that she was feeling a little envious of the process that lies ahead of me with my next book. You get to do that whole immersion thing, she explained. You get to go headfirst into the cave, the cave where the story is, and there’s nothing else that feels like what that feels like: intense and exhausting, but also electric sometimes, as though you weren’t really alive until you got in there. I knew she was right, and I have occasionally felt that way, but the thing is, getting into the cave is very, very uncomfortable. It’s almost painful. I will do anything to avoid it. I’ve been sitting by the mouth of the cave for four months. I’ve been sweeping my flashlight around on the walls inside, checking for bats, worrying about bats, wondering if I’m going to die from whatever that virus is that’s transmitted in bat guano, wondering if maybe I already have that virus, wondering if that’s why my skin is acting up, and yes, obviously, why didn’t I see it before, that’s why I’ve been feeling bloated! I will do anything to avoid going inside. I will make myself miserable, just to avoid it.
I remember feeling this way when I wrote my first book, and I remember not wanting anyone to know, because I thought I was the only one who feels this way about her work. I have wondered many times if I’m maybe not supposed to be a writer, because I will go to such lengths to avoid writing. I thought it was a sign. When we opened Delancey, even though it was the hardest work I had ever done, physically and otherwise, I thought, AH HA! I KNEW IT! I wasn’t supposed to be a writer! I’m supposed to run this restaurant! Ding ding ding! But that feeling passed. And though I wasn’t ready to put it into words then, I knew that something wasn’t right, and it was that I wasn’t writing. So here I am, at the cave again.
Brandon and I have been talking a lot about my next book, trying to remember all the details from the earliest days of Delancey, almost two years ago now. Really, the book is as much his as it is mine. A couple of weekends ago, the day after my conversation with my writer friend, Brandon and I went to the farmers’ market to buy a bunch of stuff for the restaurant, and then we went out for a quick lunch before Brandon went to work. I was trying to jog my memory about a particular moment during the opening of the restaurant, a story that I planned to write down that afternoon, and we sat there over our plates of fried rice, hashing out the chronology. I was feeling weird. I felt itchy to get home and start writing, but I also felt like maybe I needed the afternoon off, and maybe tomorrow afternoon, and maybe, you know, maybe I would never write this book at all. And I wondered yet again if this procrastination is a sign that I am in the wrong profession. I suggested this to Brandon. And then he told me something that blew my brain out of my head. Remember how, when I met Brandon, he was studying to be a composer? Apparently, he is an even more accomplished procrastinator than I am: he opened Delancey, he now confesses, to avoid having to write music. World, we have a new Procrastination Champion! I have never felt more thoroughly understood in my entire life.
And that, that feeling, changed something for me. It made me feel less alone. It made me feel ready to write. And it made me feel ready to go into the cave. Even though it’s still very, very dark in there. Make no mistake.
So I wanted to write this down, this way-too-long post. I remember when Heidi was working on Super Natural Every Day, and she would put up a post every now and then to chronicle her process, and how it made me think about my own process and feel more brave about it. Most of us spend our days in some process or other, and I want to share what that process has looked like for me lately. Actually, what I really want is for us to sit around – you, me, all of us who write or draw or design or compose or do any kind of remotely creative work for a living – and talk about how we work, how we do what we do. Creative work means making something where there was nothing before, making something out of ourselves. I have a feeling that I’m not only one who spends a lot of time pacing at the mouth of the cave, wringing her hands, worrying about the bats.
I’ve been reading Bird by Bird again. It’s my third time. Brandon has taken to calling it Third by Third. He thinks he’s very clever. In any case, my writing for the next book is currently in what Anne Lamott might call the Shitty First Draft stage, and owwww, is it awkward. So far, the book is very… workmanlike. But I’m enjoying the process anyway, for the first time. I want to remember that. Anne Lamott says this thing on page xxxi that really resonates with me: “. . . [S]ometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out.”
I saw my friend Sam the other night, after a long afternoon of writing, and we were talking and laughing, and he said, “Wow! You’re really happy when you’ve been writing, aren’t you?” I didn’t know that about myself. I’m glad I’m learning now.
P.S. If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on genius and creativity, do yourself a favor and listen. That’ll light a fire under you.