“How to write: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”
— Anne Lamott
My first job out of law school was at a large law firm in Chicago. I had a small-ish office with a western view that provided some really spectacular views of summer storms rolling in. The office was fairly typical, though it did have a swanky ergonomic chair, a somewhat novel luxury back then.
Before I was a lawyer, I thought that lawyering was about tailored grey suits, large files, and clever debates. Being a lawyer was not coordinating signature pages, due diligence checklists, and stacks of Westlaw cases. Except that is exactly what being a lawyer looks like (especially for a first year associate).
Nonetheless, I sat in my fancy ergonomic chair and did my job, head down and gritting my teeth, sometimes hating it and sometimes liking it and sometimes both at the same time.
Four years later, when I was pregnant with Jackson, everyone told me we should invest in a nice rocking chair. Naïve first-time parents that we were, we believed them and bought the fancy rocking chair from the fancy baby store.
Before I was a mother, I thought that motherhood was about squishy babies, butterfly kisses, and swooning over first smiles. Motherhood was not dealing with postpartum depression, loneliness, and doubts about whether you’re getting this all wrong. Except, for me, that is exactly what early motherhood looked like.
Nonetheless, I sat in my fancy rocking chair and did my job, feeding my babies before bed and in the middle of the night and in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes crying and sometimes smiling and sometimes both at the same time.
And now, here I am on this writer’s path (whatever that means). Before I was a writer, I thought that being a writer was about leather-bound journals, the Muse, and waves of creativity and inspiration. Being a writer was not about crappy first drafts, terrifying blank pages, typing and deleting and typing again. But what I am realizing is that, for many of us, being a writer means sitting in a desk chair (or on the couch or at the dining room table or in the coffee shop) and doing our job, writing word after word, sentence after sentence, story after story. It is writing not just when inspiration strikes, but writing even when we don’t want to write or don’t know what to write because if we don’t write we’re afraid that a tiny piece of our soul might go mute and that thing they call the muse is really just the soul talking. Being a writer, like just about anything, is hard work sometimes.
And what I am (re-)learning is, the things that fill us with joy and meaning and purpose are simultaneously hard and good. Sometimes it feels a little heavier on the hard than the good, and sometimes the doubts and fears feel all-consuming. Sometimes we question our path and wonder what in the world are doing wrong because, certainly, we must be doing something wrong for things to be as hard as they are. Sometimes we will be absolutely certain that everyone – and I mean everyone – has it easier and better than us.
We will want to give up, stop all this Hard-and-Good Work. We will get out of the chair.
But the good part of Hard-and-Good Work only comes when we buckle down, plunk our ass in the chair, and do what needs to be done. One document at a time. One nightly feeding at a time. Or one word at a time.
Believe me, I write all of this as much as a reminder to myself as anyone, because I am just the worst at remembering to take things step by step, day by day, and step by step again. I want immediate results. I compare myself to this person and that person and, well, just about everyone. I question, doubt, and want to give up.
Since Open Boxes released a few months ago, I have struggled with my writing practice. I have battled doubts and fears, and wondered on a daily basis whether it’s worth it, whether I am good enough, and whether I have it in me to write for the long haul. But what I am reminding myself is that books and blog posts and essays don’t get written by worrying or fretting or wondering, but by sitting in my chair (or on the couch or at the dining room table) and writing one word at a time, one sentence at time, one story at a time.
We’ve got to show up, sit down, and do our work (whatever it might be). That is the only way to go about it. Whether it is coordinating signature pages or dragging yourself out of bed at midnight and 2am and 4 am and again at 6am to feed a newborn. Whether it is breaking up fights over chocolate milk or caring for an elderly parent or going to chemo treatments. Whether it is helping someone who is hard to help, or loving someone who is hard to love.
Like I said, lawyering and motherhood and writing haven’t been anything like I had imagined. But really what Hard-and-Good Work is?
Some days are harder than expected; other days are better than our wildest dreams. So we show up and sit down in our chairs. We do our Hard-and-Good Work. We do it badly sometimes. We do it better other times. We show up again. And again. And again. The doubts and the fears will always be there, but so will the chair. The hard part will always be there, but so will the good. And if we’re lucky (and when it comes to the things that really matter, I have been), we have far more better-than-imagined days than hard days.
And maybe that’s the secret to doing just about anything – not just writing, but any Hard-and-Good Work: Trust the process. Sink into it. Show up. Sit down or jump in. Think less and practice more. Mess things up. Get things right. Keep at it.
What is your Hard-and-Good Work?
This post is part of the weekly Photo Inspiration Challenge with Angie McMonigal Photography. The premise is simple: Angie sends me a couple of photos and I write a blog post based on one of the photos. It is always fascinating to see what words her images bring out of me.
Not only have Angie’s photos served as inspiration for several blog posts over the past three years, but they have also inspired certain chapters in Open Boxes and I am grateful that her photos will also be used as creative inspiration for our online writing workshop in May. Designed with novice writers and getting-back-into-it-writers in mind, In Your Mind’s Eye is a one-week online writing workshop that provides photo prompts courtesy of Angie McMonigal, a variety of short writing exercises, and a small support community. You can find more information about the In Your Mind’s Eye workshop here.