Exquisite Torture

“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!””

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

It’s 5:30am. I’ve been up for a couple of hours writing. I woke up thinking about where I left off yesterday, and started writing in my mind. I thought I might as well get up and put some thoughts down on virtual paper before I lost them. Maybe, I’ll read what I wrote later and find that it’s brilliant. Or maybe it will be junk. Most likely it will be somewhere in the middle.

I am reading Annie Dillard’s, The Writing Life, again and am enjoying it much more this time. It is fast becoming a trusted tome I’ll keep on my Kindle and return to again and again, like I do with Madeline L’Engle’s, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. Robert Benson’s, Dancing On The Head of a Pen has achieved that status recently too.

In The Writing Life, Dillard reflects on the exquisite torture of writing (don’t you love the quote at the top of this post?), and  advises: “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”

I once had those words on a piece of paper taped to the wall near my desk. I took them down when they ceased speaking to me in a long and terrible season in which I couldn’t write.

They resonate now, because I am doing something that looks like writing. (I’m afraid to even whisper these words, lest that elusive muse decide to pack up and take flight. I must give it a name. Perhaps naming it will entice it to linger.) Also, because I’m keenly aware that I’m dying—not in a maudlin, terminally ill sort of way, but in the way that we all are—and there are things I have to say before I go.

The other day I was thinking about the one-sentence description I came up with a half-year ago for my new work—the overarching theme—and how I’ve strayed from it. So much so, that I set a 50,000 word manuscript aside and started a new one.

I get uncomfortable when asked what the new book is about because I no longer have a one-sentence description—that, and the fact that it’s the kiss of death, and a ticket to nowhere for the muse, to talk too much about a work too soon. But I have a one-word description; for the time being it will have to suffice.

Ah, you’re thinking I’m going to tell you what that one word is. I considered it, but decided that I dare not risk offending the muse just yet.


I’m a writer, reader, and creative. I thought by now I’d have things figured out, but I keep coming up with more questions. I think that’s okay. I’m here most mornings pondering ordinary things and the thin places where faith intersects.
  1. In my view, Dillard and L’Engle both walk on water in distilling the essence of a writer’s life.

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