I just finished writing a book. Actually the writing finished two weeks ago, but I’m just now thinking back over the experience. It’s another parable (like The Go-Giver), which means there was a story to make up, which means that over the past three or four months, there were many days when I launched myself into the void.
This is the hardest part of writing: the part where you sit with a blank page, wondering what’s going to happen, and simply not knowing.
The thing about a story is that you don’t actually “make it up.” You can’t. It doesn’t work that way. What you do is, you give yourself permission to sit there with your brain as blank as the page, and wait to see what happens.
Oddly enough, I spend very little of my writing time doing this. Most of the time, maybe 99 percent of it, is more like carpentry: filling in missing spaces, sawing off pieces that don’t fit, moving big things around, banging together big chunks of semi-finished prose with verbal nails and pegs and screws. Taking huge logs of raw transcript (if, say, I’m writing someone’s memoir) and planing them down into usable lumber.
In the process of all that carpentry, of course there are moments when I have to snatch something out of thin air, pull some idea out of the void and give it words. Taking little sips of the unknown here and there, in between the more substantial work of biting off and chewing already-existing sentences and paragraphs.
That first step, though, the part where there are no sentences and paragraphs yet, the part where there is only the empty blankness of the page, that is by far the hardest part.
It’s also my favorite part.
Lee Child (author of the Jack Reacher books) talks about this. He calls it “the gorgeous moment.” Here’s what he says, in the fascinating book Reacher Said Nothing:
“The first day is always the best. … It’s a gorgeous feeling. I try to put it off as long as possible because once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
I just came back from a weekend meditation retreat. There we spent a bunch of time launching ourselves into the void. It made me realize, I need to spend more time there.
More time facing the blank page.
Child is right, in one sense: once it’s gone, it’s gone—and everything in us begs it to be gone. The blank page is pure possibility, and sitting in pure possibility is terrifying, because there is no known to lean on.
This is what makes meditation so daunting, at least at first: faced with a blank page, one’s self is just itching to supply some knowns. Let yourself be distracted for the briefest moment, and before you know it the brain is clicking away: assessing, judging, interpreting, anticipating. Hauling you out of the void as if your life depended on it.
This is also what snuffs the life out of most would-be writers’ writing. The single biggest barrier to aspiring writers, from what I’ve seen, is the inability (or unwillingness) to shut off the critical mind, suspend judgment, and allow oneself to launch off the diving board and swim in pure possibility.
That’s the beauty of the “gorgeous moment” you first start a new story: there’s nothing yet to edit. The jaws of your critical mind snap and click on nothing but air.
Still, the moment doesn’t last. As Child says: once you start a book, the book is started, and you can’t unstart it.
Our lives are like that, too. None of us is a blank slate, because we already have a whole matrix of knowns that define us: name, job, house, history, opinions. Or so we let ourselves think.
Yet in another sense, even after you’ve started writing the book you can keep having that blank-page, pure-possibility moment all over again at every new juncture. You just have to let yourself have it.
And the same goes for our lives.
Yes, the story is already in progress. But the only reason we think there are no more daunting, thrilling unknowns, the only reason we think it’s all editing and carpentry from here on out, the only reason we think the past has already more or less determined the future, is that click, click, clicking of the critical mind pulling us along that narrow path down the middle, steering us clear of all those terrifyingly, exhilaratingly blank pages all around us.
Writing that little book the past few months had me launching myself into the void on a daily basis, and I’m just now realizing how much I love it. I love the book that came out of it—but I also love the feeling itself, the exhilaration of letting the clickclickclicking mind shut down and gazing into the face of pure possibility.
My SEAL friend Brandon tells me they have an expression in parachuting classes, as they step up to an open hatch on a plane at 12,000 feet preparing to leap out into open space:
“You suddenly realize you’re throwing yourself out of a perfectly good airplane.”
Facing an unwritten, unconceived, unknown story is something like that: you’re throwing yourself out of a perfectly good established reality.
Daring greatly, as Brene Brown and Teddy Roosevelt both put it, and experiencing the rich rewards that come with it.
The calendar tells me there’s a January 1 coming. I already know what one of my resolutions is.
I want to spend more time sitting in that gorgeous moment, with my brain as blank as the page, waiting to see what happens.
Photo © Kristian Ridley
Poetically stated–congratulations! From a fellow carpenter–enjoy those moments…
I cannot wait to read your new book. You are truly one of the great writers of all time. I find myself searching your blogs to fulfill a spiritual connection. Congrats on another “best seller”–I am sure of it. Looking forward to its release.
Grazie, Brother Ran — you’ll be among the first to know when it’s coming! (Actually, so will everyone who reads this blog. LOL)
The funny thing is I have been struggling with entering the void and why I struggle with going there. I know when I do I have so much clarity yet I do everything possible not to meditate, get quiet, etc. Your words, as always, are an inspiration and open me consciously to the unconscious thoughts in my brain.
Just remember this: when Obi Wan says, “Use the Force, Luke”? That void is where the Force comes from. ; – )
Never connected that. wow.