writing could be the boat

I don’t have nothing to write today―maybe never. Hammer in my blood a giant river swell up inside me and I’m drowning. My head all dark inside. Feel like giant river I never cross in front of me now. Ms. Rain say, You not writing Precious. I say I’m drownin’ in river. She doesn’t look me like I’m crazy but say, If you just sit there the river gonna rise up drown you! Writing could be the boat carry you to the other side…

Sapphire, from Push

I love this excerpt, what writer doesn’t struggle with that feeling that they have nothing else to write, they’ll never write again, and it’s an insurmontable challenge. It can be overwhelming, and it’s beautiful the way Precious describes how it feels when you’re in the middle of it.

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns Hemingway documentary on PBS. The third episode, The Blank Page, is especially poignant. It is difficult to watch this great American writer, struggle with his mental decline, brought about by alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and several head injuries.

On the blank page, Hemingway tells himself in A Moveable Feast, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Sadly at the end of his life Hemingway battled to write even one sentence.

Some days even writing one word seems daunting. My go-to thought when I’m struggling with the blank page or a large writing project is to remember Anne Lamott’s father’s words in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. While the words he says are simple, I love everything about this passage, the arm around the boy’s shoulder, the chaos around him, the feeling of overwhelm, the procrastination. Yes, I’ve been there many times.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

― Anne Lamott

Small steps. One word at a time. One sentence at a time.

If you aren’t familiar with Lamott’s classic and one of my favorite writing books, take a look at writer N. A. Turner’s article on his lessons learned from Bird by Bird.

How do you conquer the blank page? Can you write about your process from the blank page to your first word, your first sentence? Or can you write about the feeling of overwhelm as Precious does in the first excerpt?

Now get back to work!


The Writing Nag

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