Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Writing (And Living) Through

Sometimes, the only thing worse than making a mistake is doing nothing.

In writing, yes, and in life.

As writers, we often find ourselves stalled at important moments. A character just had an epiphany about how she has allowed herself to be controlled by others. Another character has finally admitted the fear and lies he harbors within. The story's climax is approaching, the action climbs, the mystery mounts.

And we stall.

In life, we also tend to stall right before the biggest moments of opportunity. Right before our own stories are about to break open, break free, break the rules, and break barriers.

What connects figures like Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Atticus Finch, Lisbeth Sanders, Mark Twain, Sojourner Truth, King Arthur, and John Prendergast? My list--randomly chosen figures whom I admire for their commitment to justice and truth--is peopled by fictional and real-life heros and heroines. Each one of them possesses a single characterteristic that, I think, is essential to be who we truly are as writers and as human beings.

Each one of these people does not stall.

This does not mean that they haven't faced the same kinds of crises we all face. It does not mean that they have not fallen on their knees or felt their souls crumble in heaps as they cried out, What's the point!? Indeed, many of them have, and for the real-life figures, it has often been well-documented (as in the case of Mother Teresa, who reveals in her posthumously published letters and journals, Come Be My Light, that she often felt God was absent from her life, even as she chose to continue doing the work He had called her to do).

There is a very big difference between stalling and resting. Or, perhaps a better way to phrase that asserttion would be to borrow a line from Mr. Han in the new version of The Karate Kid: "Being still and doing nothing are two very different things."

As we write or as we live, we need to be still. We should take the time to listen, think, pray, recollect, prepare and all of those other things that lend energy to our pursuits.

But once we stall, the fight is over. The Chinese have a proverb for it: "He who hesitates is lost."

Living through the confusion, the pain, and the uncertainty does not mean that we deny the fears we feel or the failures we face. Instead, it means that we look these foes in the eyes and speak honestly and authentically, growing those muscles that gather invisibly to push our voices out from our mouths and into the world.

The only way to go through something is, in fact, (and rather redundantly) to go through it.

As writers, we may need to write through scenes time and time again. We often find the paths our characters need to take by watching them walk down one and then realizing, Nope, that ain't it.

The same is true in life.

But making a mistake is a far better choice than doing nothing. We learn from our mistakes; our souls grow and our voices learn to speak more boldly. From doing nothing, we learn only how to continue to do more nothing (granted, in more modern ways perhaps).

The journey towards going through has certainly been a long one for me--and it continues to get longer when I stop and view the trail ahead each time I take a water break. But when I look back at the path I've already walked, I can smile and see that, at the very least, I don't stall my way through life or writing nearly as much as I used to.

I still do sometimes, and indeed, old habits die hard.

But when I'm writing a character now, and I find him getting close to the climax of the novel, I push him forward on his dragging feet--sometimes kicking and screaming the whole way. He argues with me, and he often offers an excellent list of reasons why I should let him stay the heck where he is.

But my characters aren't winning those arguments nearly as much as they used to.

And I sincerely hope that the same is true of my own life.