I am not in the habit of taking notes while I read. Excepting the year I was in AP US History, I have never been one to keep a notebook by my side when there’s a book in my hand. Even during my paper-writing days, I didn’t take notes as I was reading, and now that I don’t write papers, I definitely don’t take notes. This may be because I often read lying down or curled in my Papason chair or tucked in various fetal positions on the couch, and none of those really lend themselves to holding both a book and a notebook. Or it could just be because I’m lazy. But in addition to being lazy, I also have a good memory. So in the event that I do have to write something about what I’m reading, the laziness and the memory seem to complement (or maybe negate) one another, and it works out.
I am, however, in the habit of underlining while I read. This is occasionally but rarely accompanied by notes in the margins, but most of the time, I simply underline what strikes me. As I flip through my books, I can usually recall what I liked about a particular line or passage, but sometimes, I can’t for the life of me remember why I found something worthy of underlining. Or maybe “worthy” isn’t the right word. I can’t always remember what I was thinking when I underlined certain things, and that bothers me perhaps more than it should.
Let me give you an example: I was looking through my Bible the other day and landed on Psalm 15. In that psalm, David reflects on the type of person who can dwell in God’s sanctuary, and I’ve underlined the second part of verse 4, which says, “[He] who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” On a purely literary level, I understand why I underlined that–it’s powerful, it’s interesting, and it evokes a strong reaction. But on a personal level, I’m at a loss. What oath have I ever taken that I’ve had to keep even when it hurts? I’ve been thinking about this for days, which is what happens whenever I don’t know the answer to something–I beat myself batty until an answer coalesces. And I think I may have forced one into being.
First, a diversion (it really wouldn’t be one of my blog posts without a diversion). Monday was not a good writing day. For one thing, I was up too late the night before, so I was eighty percent zombie before I even got out of bed. Then, I was treated to eight hours of construction noise coming from the duplex across the way. To make matters even worse, I had taken Sunday off to go frolic in the tulip fields, and while I recognize that it is necessary to have a non-writing day now and again, the first day back is always a little rusty. And Monday was a rusty, rusty day.
You’d think I’d be used to that by now, and in some ways, I am. I’m learning to accept the rust and to power through regardless. But when I’m tired and being subjected to hammers and buzz saws and the writing isn’t flowing, I start behaving like a petulant child–flopping down in my chair, stomping my feet, crying, and growing increasingly angrier at the world and my talentless self and whatever germ of stupidity that was bred in me from birth and has spent twenty-five years deluding me into thinking I’m a good writer, or even a decent writer, or even a writer who’s only marginally better than a monkey who’s been given a typewriter.
Monday was a petulant child day. It was also a day when I was reflecting on some other circumstances in my life that are less than desirable, as well as my reaction to those circumstances, which is also less than desirable. And all of this got me thinking about the first part of I Corinthians 13:4, which says, “Love is patient.” Those words floated through my head all morning, until I wrote them on a bright orange post-it note and stuck it on my desk, right above my laptop.
“Love is patient.” Writing is an act of love. It may not always seem like it or feel like it, but it is. It’s a way of communicating and sharing with the people who inhabit our world, and that makes it, in essence, a way of loving them. But it’s also something that has to be done in love. I’ve always said I have a love/hate relationship with writing. I need it like oxygen, but man, there are times when I wish that I didn’t. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if I didn’t have words bouncing around in my brain all the time? If instead of sitting at my desk, pounding on the keyboard, headphones shoved in my ears to drown out the chaotic construction symphony, I could walk away? Or go to a normal job, come home at the end of the day, and just…relax. What would that be like? I have no idea. And unless I stop writing, I will never know. But if I stop writing, I’ll stop breathing, and so that doesn’t seem like something I should attempt to do.
Love/hate it may be, but ultimately, writing is love. If you don’t love writing, how do you explain returning to it time and again when it treats you so badly? How do you go back to the desk today when yesterday was such an utter disaster, and all you have to show for it is a mostly blank page on which you’ve written, This is the worst novel in the history of the English language? How do you convince yourself that your labor is not in vain, that somehow, all these rambling words will come to a boil, simmer, and distill into a book someone (other than you and your family) wants to read? Love. It has to be love.
And if love is patient, that means you must be patient, not only with your writing, but also with yourself. You can behave like a petulant child, but then, you have to say, “All right, you’ve had your fit. Now let’s get up and act properly, shall we?” And so you peel yourself out of bed (or off the floor, as happens in my case more often than not), open the document, and begin again. One chapter at a time, one paragraph at a time, and sometimes, one sentence at a time. If you are not patient, you’re done for. I have had to learn this lesson the hard way. I’m still learning it.
There are so many times when I’m tempted to run out ahead of the story, when I get frustrated with it and myself for taking so darn long, especially when I can’t even see a glimmer of the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s times like those when there is nothing more painful than sitting down and trying to write. But this is where the oath thing comes in: “[He] who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” I have been given the gift of writing. I have dedicated myself to this craft, and so, that means I’ve made an oath to write. And on days like Monday, when the writing won’t flow, or does flow, but in halting sputters, I have to try anyway. I have to keep my oath, even when it hurts. I have to write, and if writing is love, that also means I have to be patient.
Psalm 15 ends by saying, “He who does these things will never be shaken.” Keep your oath–that’s it. Keep writing, and something will come of it, maybe even something wonderful. Keep at it, and you won’t be shaken. And when the inner petulant child rears her head, wait until she calms down, dry up the tears, and try again. You’ll get there. It reminds me of a line in Sue Monk Kidd’s Firstlight, in which she says, “Persistent love. Persistent hope. Persistent effort. The mystery of overcoming often lay in the simple rhythmic act of keeping at it.”