Writing when you're not writing

The past few months it's been almost impossible to write. I'm pregnant, for crying out loud--eight years and one beautiful adopted boy later. I'm at twenty weeks already - my belly stretching and straining into a rounded shape--and our life is full of family, church, the local volunteer fire department, friends, summer visits, hiking, camping, church and Bible studies, volunteer work and house work and yard work. We're starting our new life over here in South Dakota, and it's wonderful! Snow and sunshine, waving fields of alfalfa, hoeing the garden and picking zucchinis that we planted with our own hands.

But between all the ultrasounds and grocery shopping and making yogurt from scratch, my mind is - for the first time that I can remember in recent years--too full to write. I sit at the computer and punch out a few paragraphs, but I feel that they lack depth, heart. I long to write, but the truth is that my heart is elsewhere.

For once, I'm focused more on real life than on the fiction characters that grace my page!

What do I do now?

A sort of panic rises beneath the surfaces as I plunge my gloved hands into a sink full of spaghetti-stained dishes for the hundredth time, scrubbing away with bubbles and rural South Dakota well water that smells of sulphur and iron. Have I forgotten how to write? Have I forgotten my heart? Is "it" gone?

And then I remember to breathe, to stop. To listen.

For even when we're not writing, a writer is always writing. A lover of words never stops loving. A ponderer of poetry never forgets to pause, every now in the chaos, and look out the window to see the rain pour down in golden sheets, over wheat-colored fields, while sun glows from a patch of dusty blue sky to the west. And feel it throb in the throat, a half laugh and half sob.

Sometimes I let my mind stop as I drive, watching wild sunflowers wave from the side of the road, and try to freeze the images in my brain for eternity. Forget craft and plot structure for a second. Throw grammar out the window. Simply let them speak to your soul. For they are indeed speaking, and the Lord whispers through them. I feel home here among these dusty roadside blooms; healed here. Like I have found part of my lost soul in these craggy, lonely buttes and hills covered with prairie coneflowers and purple blooming alfalfa.

These days aren't the first time my fiction pages have lay fallow, relatively unplowed. I remember back in college I stopped writing the fiction I'd always pored over since childhood, and instead focused on news writing, feature stories, AP style, and good composition structure--in between work, work, and more work, all smattered with homework, studies, classes, and friends. At my first job (a writing job I adored) I pounded out news and feature stories, brochure copies, captions. I interviewed and took reporting trips. I wrote video scripts. I searched for a home church and learned to cook for myself, to clean and keep my very first apartment. I stepped out in a new city as a young adult, alone and determined, failing often. I wrote journals until there were no more pages left.

But I did not write fiction.

In Japan I was too busy trying to pronounce unpronounceable words and eat with chopsticks and identify chicken (not squid; it can look similar) in the supermarket to write fiction, and more nights than not I stumbled into bed exhausted, totally worn out from the endless brain learning of foreign languagesand awkward adaptation to a new and foreign and fascinating culture.

And yet the day came, along the sunny, salt-scented Brazilian coastline, as a newly married woman, when I sat down at a used laptop and began to write. To remember. To miss. To hear the old fiction whispers that had haunted me all my childhood years. I pulled up an old story of elementary school creation and began to rewrite it, and from there I added paragraphs and pages and chapters. I was still writing some four or five years later in our rented apartment in downtown Brasilia, far from the beach. Thrilling over new plot twists and making outlines on the public bus on the way to and from work.

My stories had come back; they bloomed in secret places like unexpected flowers.

All those empty times of not writing fiction had, in fact, not been empty at all; they had simply been feeding my writer's heart. Without realizing it I had been storing up memories, smells, sights, emotions. Sorrow and confusion and loss; joy and surprise and excitement. All my mistakes in Japan, the friendships that cut me to the heart, snow falling over Sapporo's White Illumination in giddy sheets. Transition and change and loneliness and triumph. All of these were mine now; I had earned them.

When I sat at our donated computer in our second Brasilia apartment and tried to write, several of these threads popped into my head with surprising clarity--and in a the time it took to sketch out an outline, the "Southern Fried Sushi" series was born.

If you're at a season where you can't write, where you can't find the words, don't worry--they will come.

It will be like the day I pushed aside garden leaves and found a foot-long zucchini, ebony-green and heavy in my hand, where I had never seen one before. I had not even seen the bud or the bloom, much less the fruit. Where was it? Where did it come from? Oh, my friend--it was here all alone, growing silently under the leaves.

Or like my tiny son burrowed deep in my belly, growing and moving and pulsing with life, all without a sound. We did not even know he existed for four-and-a-half weeks, and yet he was already more than a month old. Soundless. Perfect. Alive. Pushing out my belly in a rounded crescent.

We are always writing. When we are reading, we are writing. When we are searching for words like lost friends, we are writing. When we are longing, we are writing.

And we will never stop.

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