Write On: Being Quiet
By Corbin Lewars
I often quote Natalie Goldberg’s brilliant advice, “Shut up and write,” to my clients, but it was rare that I followed the advice myself. I justified my belligerence by stating that I was a coach, teacher and editor. I couldn’t be quiet; people paid me for my opinion.
That indeed was true, but I had to be honest with myself and admit I was also unnecessarily flapping my jaw a lot. Much of the advice I was giving was unsolicited. I was calling friends to deliberate over every decision I made. I was designing classes I had no desire to teach. In short, I was spending a lot of time thinking about and processing things that gave me little satisfaction.
Then one beautiful day in June, I heard the message loud and clear. “Stop!” A strong voice said. “You’re creating a bunch of unnecessary noise for yourself. Remember how you worked all last summer and then complained that you missed it? Well, you’re not going to do that this year, are you?” And if the voice had a fist, she would have shook it threateningly at me.
I thought about all of the writing projects I was working on and asked myself which one I really cared about. Notice the singular there. That was a very difficult question to ask myself, being someone who loves choices, who is always working on a minimum of three projects, who never goes to sleep at night without at least six books by her bed. “One project Corbin,” I told myself.
Really, I didn’t even have to think about it. I knew I wanted to focus on my divorce guidebook. Getting a book published sustains me for months, if not over a year. Getting an essay published makes me say “Yeah!” and then I forget about it five minutes later. So, the book it was.
I followed the same process with my teaching and coaching. My current clients sustained me emotionally and financially, so that’s all I focused on. I let marketing myself, designing new classes, hustling for more clients all go. I hate that crap, but I have always viewed it as a necessary evil. But this summer, I decided, would be “evil free,” so out the window they went. What a relief it was.
Within a few weeks, I took the “and write” part off of my to do list. I recalled a talk Ann Patchett gave where she claimed she thinks about her novels for two years before she writes a single word. She doesn’t jot notes, formulate an outline, or obsess about characters for two entire years. All she does is think about the book and lets it roll around in her mind as freely and unstructured as it needs to. I followed her lead and decided I was merely rearranging the furniture with my divorce guidebook and that it too deserved a reprieve. It was written and revised, it was time to let it rest before I attempted another revision. Then I told the editor of this lovely paper that I was taking the summer off and I would resume writing my column in the fall. And you know what he said? “Good for you!”
Next came the “shut up” part of my increasingly small summer to do list. “Shut up” is an extremely naughty word in my house (four letter words go unnoticed, but “shut up” brings gasps of horrors), so instead I gently told myself, “It’s OK to be still, it’s OK to be quiet.” I stopped worrying about my writing, when and how I’d be published, and when and how I would attract more clients. I trusted that things would work out as the needed to. I stopped calling friends to process my latest relationship turmoil or fear and instead called them to invite them to go swimming. Or didn’t call at all and merely spent the afternoon reading a book.
And then I accomplished the truly miraculous: I booked five vacations for myself! Some of them included my kids, some of them didn’t, but I was excited about each and every one of them. And here’s the best part, all of them were cheaper than what I would have paid to have my kids in camp for the week, so I didn’t even have to refinance my house to afford them. We went rafting and camping, I went to see my best friend Jill in Colorado (total amount of money spent on that trip: $210, including airfare!), I took myself on a solo trip to Montana, the kids and I water-skied in Chelan, and we stayed at a relative’s beach house for free. It was by far the most relaxing and enjoyable summer I’ve ever had.
September rolled around and the kids and I were excited for school to start. We had a summer full of sun, sleeping in, fun and spending time with each other, so we were now looking forward to returning to school and work. I thought about Frederick, the little mouse in Leo Leonni’s book, who stores color and sunshine all summer long rather than working as the other mice did. The other mice begrudge and ridicule Frederick until the dark winter days come and he is able to describe the brilliant colors and warmth to the other mice, which they needed as much as the food they worked so hard to store.
Writers are just like those mice. We can’t work all of the time. Sometimes, it’s actually more necessary to sit back and soak in the colors. Sometimes, we need to be quiet, so we can really say what we want to say when we’re ready to say it. And sometimes we need to stop writing, so we can write again. If you didn’t take time this summer to soak in the sun and colors, do so now. The fall leaves are just as brilliant as the summer dahlias and peonies. Even if you don’t think you need this now, do it. You’ll appreciate it when those dark, grey, uninspiring days come.
Corbin Lewars (www.corbinlewars.com) mentors other writers at the Drawing Room on Ballard Ave. She is the author of Creating a Life: The memoir of a writer and mom in the making, which was nominated for the 2011 PNBA and Washington State book awards and her essays have been featured in over twenty-five publications including Mothering, Hip Mama and several anthologies. She lives in Ballard with her two children.