Patience in the gap

Ira Glass, the critically acclaimed radio host of “This American Life,” offers encouragement for anyone starting out in a creative field who finds that the work they’re currently producing doesn’t match up to their tastes and ambitions. His advice: Don’t quit. Keep steadily producing a volume of work and you will eventually close that gap.

Unfinished stories, shelved dreams, and the constant creative impulse

When I was a little girl–third grade maybe–I started writing my first “book,” called The Bubblegum Tree. The plot premise was a young girl and her younger brother discover a portal to an enchanted other world through a tree in their backyard that sprung up out of an accidentally planted piece of chewed bubblegum.

flickr photo by Helena Rye

flickr photo by Helena Rye

I don’t remember how I came up with that idea–it was years before I discovered C.S. Lewis and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, whose premise is undoubtedly more original. I also don’t remember what else the story was to contain. I only got so far as creating a pretend galley copy (though I wouldn’t have known to call it that back then) by folding several pieces of paper together and stapling them in the middle. I drew a cover image of the eventual famed tree, wrote the headline boldly, and added the coveted credit: By Heather Ebert, along the bottom. I even went so far as to write book blurbs on the back, a summary of the intended contents, maybe even an imagined review or two.

While I have no idea where that little book ever went, I do know that the interior pages stayed blank. Except for maybe the page numbers I’d written in the bottom right-hand corners. My big dream at the time was to be the youngest ever published author. That didn’t happen, of course, and my first memory of a dashed dream was hearing news of some wiz kid who beat me to it.

Unwritten stories and flimsy excuses

While I later did develop an honest hobby of sitting down to write for fun (rather than any lofty goals of being published), the early example was foretelling of my typical tendencies. I have had, in my adult life, lots of ideas for stories and novels that I got excited about–fantasizing about the stories’ developments in disjointed scenes like the trailer of an upcoming movie–but the sitting down and filling of interior, pre-numbered pages joining cover title and back-page book blurbs has mostly eluded me.

My excuse in college was that I had too many other classes to complete, besides my creative writing workshops, for which I wrote lukewarm short stories that revealed my inability to handle more than two or three characters at a time.

My excuse after college was that my creative writing program squelched all the childlike joy of writing I had had before signing up for those university workshops.

My excuse more recently has been simply that who has the time to write novels when you work a full-time job and have family to love on and friendships to maintain?

Who am I making excuses to anyway?

Only to myself, of course, in a frustrating, constant inner conflict between my right brain’s assertion of its own neglect and my left brain’s pragmatic approach to life’s more immediate demands.

On becoming a writer, or giving up entirely

Writer and teacher Dorothea Brande once said in her book Becoming a Writer that if your resistance to writing was greater than your desire to write, you should just go ahead and give up. Maybe not in those exact words, but that’s pretty much how I took it. This admonishment follows instructions to the budding writer that they should rise a half hour before normally awake to do morning pages, and to regularly schedule timed writing sessions.

I was always inconsistent in those exercises, perhaps because I’m not a morning person at all, and I’m a freelancer, so I don’t have an hour at which I’m used to getting up anyway. Thirty minutes before I’m fully awake could be any time between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

From time to time I heed her advice and admit defeat.

I’ve read that book three times over many years but only up to that particular passage, after which I end up putting the book down, because I’ve probably also quit writing by then, because when I read those words I feel her gaze straight at me through the page, looking over the tops of her students’ heads, across eight decades, down the miles from New York where she taught, into my room, under my covers, where I’m still hitting the snooze button.

But then, eventually, the desire to write knocks itself off the high shelf where I’d stowed it away, next to Brande’s book I never finish reading, and I’m seized again with the urge–usually relieved by journaling, at least, and not much else.

See, the problem is that I’ve never forgotten how great it felt as a child to sit and write line after line as a story told itself to me. Whether it was during an English composition class or in front of my family’s first ever Macintosh Apple computer, I would revel in right-brain bliss, as scenes and story structure and plot elements like foreshadowing bounded forth, without my ever really understanding that what I was doing could be analyzed in such terms. It was simply fun.

My first real writing tool, at age 8

(When my mom purchased that Macintosh I discovered my love of typing. Many more unfinished story ideas may have joined The Bubblegum Tree had I not loved that clangy keyboard.)

This unsquelchable desire to write creatively is really a spirit-deep desire to have fun in those innocent childlike ways that we grown-ups have long lost, beneath the weight of life experiences, disappointments, to-do lists, commuting, future planning, and plain fatigue.

When I was little, my mom would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. The question, frankly, upset me. I didn’t want to grow up. If I grew up, that would mean I couldn’t play with my beloved Barbies anymore. Instinctively I knew that adulthood was not a fun place with dolls, naps and lots of free time. Being a grown-up seemed frightfully boring to me at the time. I was convinced, especially after trying to listen to grown-ups and their conversations.

I’m 37 and still feel that way. Not that grown-ups are all boring, but that I still don’t want to grow up, I still want to play, take naps, read all afternoon. At the very least, along with being a responsible, productive, generous adult, I want to write. For fun.

Writing “for fun” also means that I’m not writing purely for money or to secure some hoped-for identity as a special creative soul, or to bring forth my own personal redemption of the heartaches and disasters that have befallen me over the years. I’ve tried writing for all those reasons and only ever ended up really drunk and disillusioned by the end of the evening, sometimes without even so much as a half-paragraph (or, an opened Word doc) to show for the trouble.

So if I can’t approach writing like a child, for fun, I’ll head Brande’s advice. For a while at least.

Doing something creative is one of the most amazing experiences ever

The pain of making the necessary sacrifices always hurts more than you think it’s going to. I know. It sucks. That being said, doing something seriously creative is one of the most amazing experiences one can have, in this or any other lifetime. If you can pull it off, it’s worth it. Even if you don’t end up pulling it off, you’ll learn many incredible, magical, valuable things. It’s NOT doing it when you know you full well HAD the opportunity–that hurts FAR more than any failure.

From Hugh MacLeod’s Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

Anne Lamott’s encouragement to writers

This Anne Lamott quote isn’t from any of her books, but came from a post on Twitter some summers ago. Lamott also wrote a beautifully encouraging Facebook post that expounded on this very idea. An excerpt:

“If you always dreamed of writing a novel or a memoir, and you used to love to write, and were pretty good at it, will it break your heart if it turns out you never got around to it?


If you wake up one day at eighty, will you feel nonchalant that something always took precedence over a daily commitment to discovering your creative spirit?


If not–if this very thought fills you with regret–then what are you waiting for?”