How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
Henry David Thoreau – personal journal of August 19, 1851.
I have notebooks filled with things I have written since high school. Most of it is very, very bad, but there are some occasional germs of ideas that could develop into something worth reading. I spent so much time filling those notebooks with words that I began to believe the words themselves deserved to be noticed, and I deserved to be applauded as their author. I tried, in fits and starts, to convince the world that my words had value. I entered contests and joined online discussion forums and read books and did all the things that young writers are supposed to do. Each time I received a similar response: “she can string a sentence together. But there is a lot more to writing than that.”
In 2005 I was hired to be a permanent substitute English teacher – a position that came with its own classroom of empty walls and bare bookshelves. I decorated those walls with quotes from famous authors, including the Thoreau quote found above. As I hung it in a prominent position in my room, I was struck that at 31 I had spent so much time sitting down to write, but had not deliberately stood up to live.
Interestingly, the more I “stood up to live,” the more I had to write. This blog was started a year later and has been most successful when I sit down to blog about the the life I have been living on my feet. When I try to “arm chair quarterback” things, I tend to fall on my backside in a most unflattering manner. If I could go back in time and speak to the me in 1997 who was so convinced I would be a screenwriter before my 30th birthday, I would say this:
“Get out of that office chair. Put down that ringed notebook and the index cards of plot points. Stand up and live and the words will come, but if you sit there like that, life will pass you by and the words will escape you.”
Until recently, however, I have seen the two things as conflicting priorities. Either live a productive life, or write. Either achieve the to do list, or write the words. I found myself filled with words while I did my chores, but the second I sat down to write them, my mind was as blank as the screen I was staring at. It was a frustrating tension in which I felt that I was doing nothing well.
Now that I find myself with actual real writing to do (more on that in the future when I have pesky things like details) I struggled with this idea that writing meant not folding laundry or doing dishes or sweeping the floor. Then, two weeks ago, when I left my iPad sitting on the kitchen counter, I blogged more than I have since going back to work. When I relegated the iPad to “entertainment” and decided I would only write at my laptop in my properly assigned work space, I didn’t blog for 15 days.
I suddenly realized that I write better on my feet. I blogged this in snatched sentences while washing dishes and wiping counters and sweeping floors. Saturday morning in the middle of writing, I stopped mid sentence to lay out an obstacle course for my kids in the basement (which doubled as research for work. Best. Job. Ever!) and came back with sentences pouring out of my brain and dripping from my fingertips. It is not just vanity to sit down to write, these days. It is, for me at least, impractical and the first step to writer’s block.
It is not that I have decided to live instead of writing. It is that I have made the conscious decision to write while I am living. I write until the words run out, and then I get up and wipe my counters or fold some clothes, or sweep the floor, until the words come again. It is surprising to me that in doing so, I am doing more of both, and in better quality.
It should not surprise me, then, to read a quote from Agatha Christie – an author who should in no way other than this be compared to Thoreau – in which she said, “the best time to plan a book is while doing the dishes.”
To that I say, how vain it is to sit down to write when I have not first stood up to wash the dishes. . .