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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Thriving in Discomfort: Guest Post by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew explains why and how to thrive in discomfort

Writers, like any intelligent human being, do our best to avoid unnecessary discomfort. However, creativity requires a certain level of discomfort.

Okay, full disclosure: what I really mean by “certain level of discomfort” is “a variable amount, that more often than not, is high, always higher than we wish, and usually equivalent to the joy and gratification we gain from the creative endeavor.” Writers endure discomfort because we must, because we’re unwilling to let go of the joy.

The push-pull of wanting to avoid discomfort and being willing to endure it is a common and powerful source of resistance. So I’m delighted to share with you the insight, compassion and encouragement of Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew in this excerpt from her latest book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice. Elizabeth writes about the writer’s spiritual trials during revision, but the principles apply in all stages of writing, because all writing is, at the heart, spiritual practice.

Thriving in Discomfort

After allowing my novel to rest for half a year, I launched back in to restructure the first hundred pages, reshape the personality of the main character, and change her reasons for making a pivotal decision. As I revised, I experienced the complicated joy of being immersed in a project.

I find the sensation to be one of absolute concentration coexisting with absolute rebellion. I move into the cosmos of the book and see nothing beyond its boundaries. And I squirm. I need a glass of water, and then ice, then a coaster. I clip my toenails. When these powerful, contrary forces rise up, I know I’m in the heat of writing.

“I think that writers must try not to avoid knowing what is happening,” Anne Sexton says. “Everyone has somewhere the ability to mask the events of pain and sorrow. . . . But the creative person must not use this mechanism any more than they have to in order to keep breathing.”

Why? Our stories can be true only when we look directly, simply, and clearly at reality.

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here,” Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Revising is the contemplative practice of seeing and reseeing “what’s going on here,” then representing it on the page.

A writer’s capacity to tolerate discomfort, including violent busts of elation and anguish, determines how deeply and for how long he or she can reside in the generative state. Discomfort is the forerunner of growth. Consider the endurance Junot Diaz needed to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

‘”The novel had me lost the entire process. The beginning only revealed itself at the end. Very frustrating to find yourself having to start at the beginning again, but that’s how this writing game is. Rarely anything linear about it. In the end I handed the book to my editor convinced that what I had written was a colossal failure. I spent the next eight months demoralized about the eleven years I had wasted on the book. Even after the awards, etc., it took a long time before I let myself look on the novel with any kindness.”

Such an emotional rollercoaster ride tells us nothing about the worth of our process or product. “Write a little every day,” advises Isak Dinesen, “without hope and without despair.” Hope is hope for the wrong thing, as T. S. Eliot so wisely reminds us, as is despair. We must walk the middle path.

Fortunately, this is a skill we can develop. I can acknowledge my body’s restlessness without leaving my writing chair; I can recognize my ego’s rebellion and still immerse myself in the project. I can tolerate my own dissatisfaction with the quality of my work and continue writing.

While writing, we choose again and again to be uncomfortable, going against instinct and social norms and, possibly, good sense. From discomfort rises our best work. If we can hold paradox in our bodies, we can illuminate paradox inside our stories. If we can practice walking the middle path on the page, we’re more likely to walk it in our lives.

Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew writes, loves, teaches, and urban homesteads in South Minneapolis.  When she’s not chasing her gregarious daughter around the neighborhood or dancing with her partner, she’s doing her best to support the spiritual life of writers. 

Her books are Swinging on the Garden Gate:  A Spiritual Memoir (Skinner House Books), Writing the Sacred Journey:  The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir (Skinner House Books), On the Threshold:  Home, Hardwood, and Holiness (Westview Press), the novel, Hannah, Delivered (Koehler Books), and most recently, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice (Skinner House Books).  You can connect with Elizabeth at www.spiritualmemoir.com and www.elizabethjarrettandrew.com.

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