As writers, we spend a lot of our time looking down. At computer screens, at books we’re reading, at our navels. I recently discovered that even when I take my dog for our daily walk, I mostly end up staring at my tennis shoes and disappearing into my head.
My thoughts take up lively discussion there, mostly having to do with how impossible it’s going to be for me to complete something, or how a project I’m working on is stale, clichéd, or just plain embarrassing.
These cocktail parties in my brain are mostly filled with nasty people—each one a little piece of me, sniping and trying to outdo each other with tales of woe. Some dialogue snippets from past parties include, “That thing you’re writing is way too similar to that thing that amazing writer wrote a long time ago. You will be outed and shamed.” “Why haven’t I heard back from her? I sent the story to her two weeks ago. She must hate it.” “I shouldn’t be writing about ghosts. It’s all been done before.” “Hack.” (Hack is the party people’s favorite word, they use it like ‘and’ or ‘the.’)
The thing is, I love these parties. I’m the guest of honor. They know me there. I have a special chair. It’s deep and fluffy and comfortable. It has a footrest and my coffee cup stains, even breast milk splotches from when my kids were babies. After years of sitting there, it fits my body perfectly. My deepest fears and insecurities enfold me in what feels like a comforter.
I am home.
But a couple of weeks ago, I was deep inside my chair, when my dog started barking. I snapped out of it long enough to realize I was actually walking in my neighborhood. Lucy was so pissed off at a squirrel that she kept rushing at it and flipping herself over backwards on her leash.
I started to laugh.
I looked around.
Strangely, I started to feel better.
The next day I tried an experiment. During my walk, I looked up. Several times, my chin drifted back down, familiar with that position, my brain longing for the familiar party chatter and the overhead view of my tennis shoes, but I caught myself. Each time, I forced myself to look up.
Wow, I thought. That tree is frickin beautiful. And that gardener with the giant cowboy hat is really nice. Unlike the people in my head, he seems to like me, waving and averting his blower as I pass.
Then I started to notice the clouds. They were huge—cumulus. The kind I used to paint in art class when I was twelve. I remembered what it felt like to look up at the sky and see beauty.
I started to feel myself breathing, in and out.
I was calm.
I noticed my neighbor’s persimmon tree, now bare of fruit, but stark against the smudgy clouds. A straggly rose hanging nearby, winter wilted, but still fragrant. Yeah, I sniffed it—the cocktail party people shouted that it was cliché but I didn’t care any more.
Even my dog noticed the new spring in my step, looked back at me like, “What’s up with you, lady?”
After she pooped and I picked it up in my ziplock bag, I actually caught a whiff of it. Damn girl, I have to change your dog food. And how come I never noticed she does that hilarious back kick thing on the grass after she’s done, like she’s trying to bury it?
I started to wonder if the recently deceased old lady, who lived in the house with the wheelbarrow on the lawn, had a husband. And if he was sad she was gone. A story about her began to form in my head.
After taking in the streets and trees and flowers along the way, I walked up the final hill toward my house. I felt myself breathing heavily, my brain was buzzing. The voices were gone. There was my neighbor’s dog Cocoa, a tiny dog that looks exactly like Toto. His owner waved to me, and Lucy started barking viciously, like she wanted to kick his little Yorkie ass. She’s a rescue dog. She probably could.
Life is pretty great I thought. I live on this street, we have a basketball hoop in our driveway, my dog could kick Cocoa’s ass.
Damn, I’m awesome!
I opened the door to my house, released Lucy from her leash and sat down at my desk, ready to work.
Then I thought, “Whoa. What just happened?”
I felt like a million bucks.
It was at that moment I realized that my special comfy chair was located in a haunted house. A haunted house that I consciously and intentionally entered each day. And that I didn’t have to go there. I didn’t need that party. Those people were jerks. They didn’t really like me, and they weren’t even telling me the truth. They just made that stuff up. I forgot, they’re writers.
Don’t get me wrong. There are days I find myself searching for that party. For that chair. For that downward spiral.
But I’m aware of what I’m doing. And I can look up.
So writers, what would happen if you lifted your chin just a tiny bit and looked around?
Could you let go of those voices for just a moment and be present in your life? Could you believe that the words on your page are fun, or scary or dramatic or whatever you intend them to be? Could you believe that your dog could kick Toto’s ass?
Take action. Go on a walk. If you live in a city, find a place where there are trees. Look up. Look around. Breathe.
Then sit down to write.
I guarantee the only voices in your head will be the ones coming from the people on the page.