I sat one windy afternoon on a bench at Mount Hermon’s Conference Center in Northern California and talked with a magazine editor about writing and about life as a writer. I needed some perspective, and I thought he could help me get it. As we sat there on that bench in the cool afternoon shade and sipped hot cider, I appreciated his willingness to let me wonder aloud about what it’s really like to be a professional writer.
We talked of isolation—the loneliness of writing. Good writing must be done in solitude, away from the noise and glare of people; well-meaning people who ask how you’re doing, about how it’s coming along, about “how much longer until it’s finished?” We talked about how difficult it is to get anything published, whether it’s an article, a devotional piece or a book. Competition is stiff. Writing is very hard work. It’s easy to become discouraged, when, after you’ve made your best pass at a piece, editors (who are paid to be critical) violate your “baby” by having the audacity to suggest that you clarify, simplify, or even leave some of it out all together.
I told my editor friend that at times, I felt very lonely as a writer, that I had some serious doubts about my capabilities, that sometimes that fear of rejection strangled what I felt I was trying to say in my writing. He sat patiently and listened as I talked about how it feels to be a writer, how it feels to face rejection, loneliness, solitude, and doubt in your own capabilities. I already knew that writing meant dealing with those feelings, but it was good to hear someone I trusted, who understood the writing life say, “Writing contains all of those elements. Anyone who wants to write must be willing to face them.”
Finally, during the last fifteen minutes or so of our appointment, I asked a gnawing question that I hoped he could answer. What of those days? Certain days, when a writer goes to his appointed place to write, and as he approaches a clean, spotless page or a blank computer screen to begin . . . what happens, when nothing happens? Instead of a creative stream flowing from a fountainhead of thoughts and ideas, there is a dry wadi, arid and void of life. There are no words, only a waterless riverbed, a dried-up stream where words one flowed. A dry, parched wind has replaced the breeze of imagination and brought with it a dust of doubt … a suffocating fear that the words will never come again; a blowing, blinding dust that burns the eyes of the mind and pollutes creative juices.
What’s a person to think when there are no thoughts? What does one say, when it seems there is nothing to be said? What happens when the writer can think of nothing to write? In other words, what do you do on days when there are no words?
Fortunately for me, the man I was talking with was very wise. He did much listening and nodding. He sat, legs crossed, leaning into my queries with a body language that invited me to open my soul and ask serious, difficult, questions.
And then, he did not answer. Instead, he asked more questions.
“I don’t know,” he said. “What do you think a person who writes should do on days when there are no words?” I spent the next several minutes trying to describe the routine I use for overcoming those days. He had some great insights, too. He mentioned diet and exercise and taking an occasional break from the rigors of writing. But eventually, we both agreed that there’s only one thing for a writer to do on days when there are no words … and that is to write.
What do writers write, you may ask? How do they write if there are no words? How do they say if there is nothing to say? They begin. I begin. I force my fingers to type words and sentences that I tell myself do not necessarily make sense. I am not concerned with syntax; passive verbs and conjunctive phrases will not cause me undue alarm on days when there are no words. I am not so concerned with making sense, as I am concerned that I write. There will be other days for sorting out; on other evenings I can examine preferred spellings and paltry punctuations that bring clarity to what I have said. On days when there are no words, I simply write—one letter at a time, one word at a time, one sentence at a time.
Writing and living are very similar activities. Days when there are no words are like days when there is no hope—no ray of sun to bring warmth and comfort; only a gray fog of despair that hides contentment, inviting insipid silence that deadens the spirit.
In your life, what do you do when there are no words? On blank mornings when your feet hit life’s cold floor and you have no idea how to cope with the challenge of writing life’s script for another day, how do you begin? What do you do when you’re driving to work and you can’t think of one good reason why? You’re grateful for a job, but you already know that the check that comes on Friday won’t begin to cover the bills that arrived Monday through Thursday. How do you fill the page of another day, when loneliness and isolation grip you, choking the very life out of life; when you can think of no words to describe your discouragement and the gnawing fear … that the words will never come again.
Take it from one writer to another. There’s only one way to deal with days when there are no words. Begin. Force yourself to avoid trying to make sense of things. There will be other moments for that. Believe it because it is true. There will be other days to sort and sift and think.
Right now, you must live this day—the only day there is. Yesterday was, and tomorrow will be, perhaps. No guarantee on tomorrow. Only today actually is.
Walk, not by sight, but by faith, one moment at a time, one insecure step at a time. For there is another Author—the Author and Finisher of your faith, who is the same, yesterday and today and forever. He knows the plot of your drama and the plight of your life. He—the Word become flesh—will be your word. There will be another day for making sense of it all. The only way to learn to write is to write. And the only way to live—really live—is to know that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him . . . especially on days when there are no words.
And the word of the LORD came again.
(Zech. 7:8 NIV)