It Was A Dark and Stormy Life: When Writing Is Hard

August 9, 2013

Draft Markup

“…You have to sit and tolerate yourself long enough to grind out a shitty draft.” — David Rakoff

Hearing voices

The writer, David Rakoff, died a year ago, August 9. It was hot that day in San Francisco, hot enough in this wintry-in-summer place that I tied up my hair and took off my bra, turned up the radio and listened all day to the author talk in pre-recorded interviews to Terry Gross, David Sedaris, Ira Glass, all the radio literati that loved the man for his writing and spirit, no doubt with even more reverence than mine.

He was 47. He was sharply funny and painfully insightful. In interviews and readings he had the kind of voice I hear in the writers, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed. The kind I asked my therapist about while scratching at the surface of my own writing, “How do they reach that low-belly sound?” Deeply resigned. Full of life. At the same time.

It’s a sound that says, “Life’s a bitch, in slow, criminal strokes, yes it is. When you get used to it, you’ll find that, for this it is remarkable, the dark a matter of reality, the light, indelible.” Their voices descend to rise. They’ve managed to tangle in life’s bedsheets without losing themselves forever so much as fever-ing off the layers that were not they.

What if to live with any salt, to inhabit something meaningful about yourself, you have to submit to your darkness, and grieve it to light? To find that low-belly voice of acceptance and light despite its counterpart, you have to be willing to get grave.

Getting lost

Rusted behind writers block, for six years, I kept altering my approaches, trolling depths to get something out. One day I hit on a fear that when I wrote, I was submerging myself into another world, my story’s world, and what if I couldn’t come back? What if I got lost over there and couldn’t interact in this world anymore? Or what if I left something of myself over there when I did make it back? I called two friends and asked them to check on me if I ever went too many days without calling them.

I didn’t recognize at the time I was describing grief, the abyss of prior losses, terrified of falling and never landing, never again finding the me I was before I gave in to despair. Neither did I recognize that my grief would be the thing to save me, writing to get through.

Writing changes you. It’s the nature of story: if neither hero nor circumstance changes from beginning to end, then there is little reason for telling it.

Getting found

Authors like Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Lidia Yuknavitch, David Rakoff, have gone to their personal darkness and reported from it. All have come back from it, breathing, alive, resigned to its magnitude, and pulsing with the life that grows out of it.

Watch this two-minute video of David Rakoff by Sheepscot Creative, and listen to a writer’s writer talk about doing it for the satisfaction of being listened to, the capacity to convince through words, the nature of creativity, and about writing being not just difficult, but really hard.

If you’re afraid of the change, or afraid of facing the page solo, take these writers with you. It’s not rainbows and yellow brick roads. It’s your very own writing journey. So much better.


You can also give me a call. I help people write because I eventually did let go into the dark. And eventually I wrote my way back. You may have to journey to your darkest places alone, but no one said you can’t have people pulling for you and offering support from the sidelines. When the writing begins, sometimes a lot more begins that we didn’t expect. You’re allowed to enlist help. You may journey alone. But you don’t have to write alone.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Marianne August 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Amen, sister Pema. xx
Marianne recently posted..What is your genius?


Pema Teeter August 11, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Amen! Zen Under Fire narratives revisited me while I wrote this. xo


Suzette Clough February 12, 2015 at 7:13 am

Pema…I absolutely love what you wrote in this post…I found your connections to writing, getting lost and the fear of not coming back deeply reassuring in your voicing of them…the shamanic nature of the creative journey and the loss of self are sometimes terrifying…I appreciated your words, your thoughts, your medicine drum. Suzette


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