I wouldn’t mind if that’s what it said on my tombstone.
So, recently, I got into a bit of a plotting pickle with this thing I’m writing. I just couldn’t figure out a particular aspect of the story. In my usual fashion, I threw myself at it, then threw myself at it again, and again, hoping that my self-propulsion would manage to bash me through it, because sometimes, it does. This time, it didn’t. Realizing that what I needed was a break, I put my notebook away. For several days, I did other things, anything, provided that it was neither writing nor thinking about writing. From time to time, the writing tried to lure me back. It has a whole bag of tricks it likes to use on these occasions: it tried to make me feel guilty; it tried scaring me into believing my book was in peril if I didn’t get back to work; it tried presenting me with a nice, tempting, challenging wall to throw myself at. Every time, just like with a meditation practice, I smiled, noticed what the writing was trying to do, and said, “No. I can’t figure you out today. Go away. I’ll come back to you later.” And it did go away, and I had my break, and when my instincts told me I was ready to try again, I got back to work. And wouldn’t you know it, something had untangled itself while I was gone, and I could see the problem — and begin to see the solutions — from all kinds of new angles I hadn’t even realized existed before. The solution, in fact, involved letting go of a number of basic assumptions I’d had about the structure of the book.
What my book most needed when it — and I — got all tangled up in each other was for me to let it go.
Writing is my practice. The recognition of this need for time away from writing and the wherewithal to follow through with it is a writing skill it’s taken me many years of practice to hone. I spent a lot of time in the past trying to push through blocks and burnout, too afraid that taking a break was equivalent to giving up. Eventually, with curiosity, experimentation, and practice, I learned to recognize the part of my writing nature that will gnaw at a bone until the bone is gone, then gnaw my own teeth down to my gums, and I’ve learned to recognize that it’s a potentially harmful writing tendency that I need to monitor and keep in balance. My tendency as a writer is to overwork? Okay then. That leaves me with the (truly pleasurable) responsibility of making sure I pay attention to the need for breaks. I’ve learned that writing improves with breaks; that breaks show you the errors in what you thought you knew. I’ve also learned to trust myself not to give up while I’m away, and to trust the book not to give up on me. Through practice, I’ve found my faith as a writer.
Now I’m trying to learn how to live the way I write. What do I mean by that? Life is full of questions that have no answers, or questions that we — I — don’t have enough information to answer reliably. I watch myself throwing myself at those questions, over and over and over, and I know there’s no answer to be reached, but still I can’t stop throwing myself at them. So, what if I apply the skills I’ve learned from writing, and give myself a break? What if I pay attention to the things I do know, to who I am and what actually is, and learn to say to the unanswerable questions, “No. I can’t figure out the answer to you today. Go away. I am okay with knowing merely what I know, not knowing what’s coming, and still being open to this life.”
The other day, as codename: Apocalyptica the Flimflammer and I unpacked some groceries, she said something about how she was striving to be more equanimous in life. “Equanimity!” I exclaimed.
“You say that as if it’s something you just found in a bag,” she said.
It was more that I’d found the word for the thing I was also trying to achieve. I think equanimity is like a person comfortably at rest on a tightrope. Not really at rest, because the balancing requires a keen awareness and an active openness to factors outside your control. A poise. But not in motion, either. Balanced and safe, but prepared to move in any direction, should motion become necessary. Balanced and safe, but with no idea, until the rope tells you, what form that motion will need to take, or which way it will send you, or when it will happen. Maybe there are other people on the same tightrope with you. Well then – letting go of your assumptions about the things you think you know about other people, and what they’ll do. Waiting, instead, ready, with openness and curiosity, to find out who other people are, who you are, what does happen, and how you will choose to react to it.
This requires an enormous faith in yourself, and a practiced comfort with the unknown.
And so I’m practicing.