Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while have likely noticed that, in the last year, many posts have taken on a new form–the shessem, my invented genre for that which seems to be little more than a collection of isolated thoughts, which gather around a through-line I can never quite put my finger on. These strange little beasts began coming to me in October of last year, around the time I lost my job, and they’ve continued to prance into my writing world ever since, especially during these recent months when my novel has been stalled out. If you’ve read these shessems, congratulations! You’ve actually been reading the pieces of my latest project. Surprised? Me too.
It happened like this: two and a half weeks ago, I was lamenting my inability to process my life. The theme of this past year has been “things are never what you think they are,” and quite frankly, I’m growing resentful of that. But after I cried and lamented some more, I started thinking about my shessems–what are these things but bunches of incidents that I haven’t been able to process? And what if I’ve now collected enough of them that they can form a greater whole? What’s more, what if these seemingly self-indulgent piles of weirdness are actually segments of stories that need to be told, but in a way I have never told stories before? What if, all this time, I’ve been writing a novella without knowing it?
Turns out, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. It’s not unlike when I was in grad school and spent a year and a half thinking I was writing a short story collection, when I was actually writing a novel-in-stories. Had I known that’s what I was working on, those stories may have come out differently. Similarly, had I known this whole year I was writing a novella instead of shessems, they would’ve turned out very differently as well. I also wouldn’t have written a draft of the stalled-out novel, which I fully intend to return to, once this newest project is done having its way with me.
In all of this, and in everything that’s happened to me lately, I’ve been ruminating on the idea of necessary blindness–how, sometimes, we aren’t allowed to see the whole picture initially because it would distort the way we move through it. It’s like living in a fog bank. Every day, it gets light, and every night, it gets dark. But there seems to be no sunrise, no sunset, just varying shades of gray, and that can feel stagnant and unpromising when you inhabit it day in and day out. The thing is, the fog isn’t the whole of what’s happening. Behind those clouds, the sun is blazing, and colors are flooding up the sky. When you live in the fog, you can’t see the ways in which the world is coming to life and aligning around you, and maybe for some time, that limited view is necessary. Maybe it teaches you faith in a way that light and brilliant skyscapes can’t–at least, not until you’re ready.
These last few years have been filled with a lot of fog. They’ve been filled with more blows to my ego than I care to name, as well as more changes in direction, more changes of the heart, and more changes of the mind than I can even begin to comprehend. If you knew me two years ago, you knew a different person. Of that much, I am sure. Or perhaps my brother said it best when, last spring, he told me, “You’re different, but you’re not. You’re just more fully yourself.” And maybe, it’s like that. Sue Monk Kidd said, “Enduring comes from arriving at our own earned truth, knowing it inside, not because someone else tells us it is so or because we read it in a fine book, but because we have experienced it ourselves.” For stubborn souls like me, there is no other way to come into the truth than earning every agonizing step of it.
But earning the truth is no easy task. Many things you love will be ripped from your life. Each one will be a larger loss than the last, and so each one will be more difficult to wrestle with, but will also teach you something greater. The terribly painful trick in the midst of this suffering is to keep your heart open to what the circumstances are teaching you and to keep moving forward, even when it nearly kills you. How do you survive any tragedy? You breathe. One day, one hour, one minute. There’s a reason we’re only given one day to live at a time, but in periods of trial, I find I have to take it in even smaller segments. I have to get out of bed in the morning and tell myself, Today, I breathe. This hour, I breathe. This minute, I breathe. And somehow, the days and hours and minutes pull along, until weeks have passed, and I’m still going. That’s how you survive. This second. Breathe.
I’ve spent these writer’s block months doing a lot of breathing, trying to figure out how to live my life while feeling so uncertain of who I am and of my place in the literary world and the world at large. But like the knee injury that deprived me of running, this temporary writing deprivation taught me many things. One, that people will still talk to me if I’m not writing, and those who love me will not stop loving me because I’m not writing (unless I continue to whine about not writing, in which case, they might). Two, that I don’t need to write in order to survive. It’s vital. It’s intrinsic to who I am, how I love, how I interpret the world. It’s a gift I’ve been given and charged not to squander, but it is not a foundation on which to build the whole of my existence. It is not something I can only achieve when I push everything else aside, and it is not something I am only allowed to have at the cost of all else.
This has been a major lesson. Again, like the knee injury, writing first had to break me in order to make me stronger and teach me how to commune with it in a deeper, more meaningful way. I run longer and more contentedly now than I ever have in my life. I am less rigid about the miles I log, and so, I end up going for longer when I want to and less when I don’t. With this new novella, I find myself making time for it, but not in the guilt-ridden way I’ve written in the past. There is no longer the frantic need to get so many words onto the page per day, so many hours tallied per week. Both running and writing now feel to me the way real love does. Rather than the panicked flutter of butterflies, uncertainty, and adolescent frenzy, I am drawn to run and to write by a kind of inner harmony I feel pulsing both inside and all around me–less rapids and more steady undercurrent, less earthquake and more gravitational pull. And that changes everything.
It changes everything I think I know about endurance and grace and breathing God into others’ lives, about mercy and love and timing, about kindness and hardship and praying promises into existence. It changes everything I think I understand about blindness, suffering, and growing, about walking this long and difficult path with my Lord. Sometimes, I think I could wait forever for the things God has for me. Other times, I wake up and think life is precious and flammable and wonder, “God, what am I doing here?” Sometimes, I think patience is a virtue I will never understand, but you know what? I’m learning. Somehow, in all of this, I’m learning something, and it’s difficult and uncomfortable but more vital than I can even express. Because what I am beginning to comprehend is a truth that I will need to hold inside my soul for the rest of my life: that the best things are often the hardest things because they are the only things worth fighting for.
Finally, my writer’s block has taught me that, just because I don’t think I’m writing something, it doesn’t mean I’m not. I’ve practically written an entire book without being aware of it. That’s crazy, right? But I think, more often than not, that’s how it goes. The sunrises and sunsets behind the bank of clouds. The tectonic plates shifting in the ground beneath us. The invisible hand of God carving out the road on which we are taking every step. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just because you feel as though nothing is happening or will happen again, it doesn’t mean you won’t wake up tomorrow and find yourself smack inside one of the best stories you could’ve ever imagined.