Follow The River, No Matter Its Rapids, No Matter Its Turns

It’s a lot right now.

I think if we can agree on anything, anything at all between us, it’s that everything is a whole lot. It’s too much. It’s a pandemic and an election and protests (which are good!) and we’re all trapped in a glowing LeMarchand’s Box with Trump and there’s climate change on the near horizon and did I mention there’s a pandemic? A big, scary, lung-punching, brain-tweaking pandemic? If you’re not screaming into a couch cushion soaked with gin right now, who even are you?

There’s been renewed interest in a post I wrote in 2017 — Ways to Stay Motivated in this Shit-Shellacked Era of Stupid — and with the rise on views on that post, there’s also been a renewed bevy of emails headed by way from writers who are foundering and floundering in all of this *gesticulates wildly* going on around us. Certainly these emails echo my own mindset, which is — after a garbled gargle of inchoate rage and bewilderment — how are we supposed to write during this? How the hell am I supposed to put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and type out something that is even vaguely cogent, much less even a little bit escapist? How are sentences not just strings of profanity and ASCII garbage, how are our stories not just 300 pages of wasps stinging ignorant bigots in their mouths? How do you not type with your fists, how do you not tell these stories through your clenched and cracking teeth? How are our books not just screams?

And I don’t…

…have a great answer for that.

Because there is no great answer. There is only — as there often is in hospitals right now — triage. We’re all just trying to hold it together. Deadlines or no deadlines, the words must flow, but sometimes it’s a trickle, and sometimes it’s a violent bar-night vomiting.

But here’s what I’m thinking.

I’m thinking all of this is a river. It’s a dark, fast river. It crawls serpentine through the earth, through the forests. Sometimes it moves slow, other times it’s all rapids. Sometimes it is eerily serene, and sometimes it’s rough enough to knock your teeth into your knees and draw blood. It’s waterfalls and eddies, it’s deep and it’s cold. Like all rivers, it can soothe you, and it can betray you.

This river, the river we’re in and on now — it’s harder, meaner, a river after a flood, a river whose waters are not sated, who will not abate. It’s mudded up and frothing like the muzzle of a rabid wolf.

You can fight against that river.

We often do, in writing. We often go against our own moods, against the news of the world, against bad reviews and against poisoned thinking. Our work is often an act of anchoring our boots against the soft slick weeds and the water-smoothed stones and move against the current.

Upstream, stories can be born.

Sometimes, though, I think you gotta do the other thing.

Sometimes, you go the other way.

You go with the flow.

You run with the river, not against it.

And what that means, practically speaking is, you let it happen. What you’re feeling, what you’re seeing, sometimes those elements demand to be seen in the work. Sometimes the river is the channel that feeds the narrative sea, and that means you need to put it in there, out there, all over it. You don’t escape. You confront. You ride the turns, you rough out the rapids, you take all your fear and your anger and your confusion and you put it on the page. And not even in a way of trying to write something that’s marketable or sellable — but just trying to speak honestly about who you are, about the world in which we’re living, and about your grappling with all of it. It’s not even about writing a cogent book or a collective piece. It can be about taking the time to punch that keyboard and scream onto the page — if only to clear the water and find time to climb back onto shore to write something else. It can be the thing you’re writing, or it can be a way to get to the thing you’re writing.

I don’t mean to suggest this as good “advice” — it’s certainly no requirement. You have to do what feels best and right — and, further, what feels most productive in the direction you need to be going. I’m only saying that, if it’s that much of a slog, if the slow churning march upriver and against the current feels like you’re fighting too hard and losing to the pressure, turn around and go the other way. Sometimes we want to, even need to, write about what’s going on inside our heads and our hearts. Sometimes we can’t ignore the room on fire. Sometimes we can’t get out of the river or go against it. And in those cases, let the waters take you. Write what needs to be written. Write what the river tells you to write. Follow the water, and see where you go.

(P.S.? You can always edit it later.)

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