If you’ve been having trouble writing lately, here's a gratitude practice for writers that works for me Every.Single.Time.
Grab a pen and paper: ready?
Over the years as a reader, you’ve read books that excited and thrilled you, and books that made you feel you were not alone.
This came up for me again this week when a colleague asked for some “pandemic reading recommendations” and I responded to her with what became quite a loooong list and could have been even longer.
I started with the book I’m reading right now (the last in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy) and I was so excited to share it, because I love knowing that other people might love it as much as I do. And it’s such a great escape right now.
When I was younger, I used to think that a book had to be “literary” or somehow “worthy” for me to enjoy it, and certainly to recommend it to anyone. But now I just love what I love and am open to different books meeting different needs.
Sometimes I want a great escape, sometimes I want comfort, sometimes I want to think through a new problem, sometimes I want to delight in language, sometimes I want to explore another world, sometimes I want to meet new people, sometimes I want a book I can eat like popcorn and M&Ms, sometimes I want a full course meal.
So let’s do this exercise: name three books, and their writers, that you are most grateful for right now at this very moment in time.
Here are mine:
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, and most books by Ann Patchett. The Dutch House was recently recommended by friends who’d read it, and I came across Ann years ago with the publication of her novel Bel Canto, which is one of my all-time favorite books on a long list of favorites. I’m so grateful to have read these beautiful books, and I’m grateful also that Ann co-owns a bookshop in Nashville, Tennessee. (Every writer's other dream...mine also sells amazing stationery products, has an espresso bar and comfy seating for poets.)
A Murderous Relation by Deanna Raybourn. This is pure joy. I came across her first book in this series while wandering a bookstore (so grateful for bookstores!), which is my favorite way to find new books. (Truth: all the ways are my favorite ways to find new books.) I had just started reading mysteries and was keen to find new series. This series follows Victorian lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell, a woman well ahead of her time. There’s a bit of romance with her friend Stoker and I am always left wondering about the killer until the very end. I’m grateful for the fun these books offer me, and also Ms. Raybourn herself is a true wit -- follow her on Twitter for the full effect. But don’t start this series with the current book, start at the beginning with A Curious Beginning.
Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell. This is the latest by the same writer who wrote St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. (I’m beyond grateful just for this title -- isn’t it amazing? Don’t you want to have read it already?) I LOVE short stories and am made so happy when an author I love brings out a new collection. Russell floors me with her inventiveness and I’m grateful to her for showing me again and again how to bend and twist what a short story can accomplish within the bounds of the form.
I’m grateful for American poet Carolyn Forche and her poetry of unyielding witness. Her poem The Boatman, which appeared in Poetry (very grateful for this magazine as well) still stops me cold. I have it posted on my fridge so that I can read it every day of my life. It represents to me the highest possible achievement for a poet.
I’m making myself place a hard stop here because I could do this all day long and still not exhaust the list of authors to whom I am deeply grateful.
Have you paused lately to think about these writers and the debt of gratitude you owe them? A debt you can delight in paying again and again.
Take a moment now and write down 3 or 4 names, just quickly -- the ones that come immediately to mind.
[This is just a space I’m holding for you while you go do that...go on, grab a pen and a Post-It. It won’t take long.]
Now, here's the next step:
Imagine if these authors, to whom you feel so grateful, had decided to listen to any of the following thoughts:
“I don’t know how to structure this epic multi-generational novel, so I should just give up.”
“My mystery series is too silly and not “real” literature so I’ll write something else.”
“I don’t have the right to witness someone else’s pain and speak to it. What if I get attacked for it?”
“This story has already been told better by so many other writers. Who am I to even try this?”
“I don’t have the skills to play with language and form in the way this book requires. I should write something easier.”
“The world is so uncertain and fragile and so unjust, how could a novel possibly even matter right now?”
“My day was too long and intense and now I'm just too tired to write.” (This last one was for me, in case you’re wondering.)
I think about this a lot. Because I am a writer who has ALL of the negative thoughts in all their many permutations. And yet I write anyway. Gratitude plays a huge role for me in enabling me to keep going when I would otherwise be at the mercy of my thoughts. Gratitide keeps me resilient.
Oh, but YOUR thoughts are The Deeply and Truly True Negative Thoughts, are they?
Reader, I love you but you are not special in this. You may think that your thoughts are true, but guess what? They are just your thoughts. In five minutes, you will have a hundred new thoughts. And if you haven’t yet written something because you’re having The Deeply and Truly True Negative Thoughts about it, you could not be more wrong -- because you haven’t written the da*n thing yet!
And here’s another element to add to your gratitude practice for writers -- one that has also worked for me over the years: as you write, imagine that grateful reader on the other side. The one person (just one) for whom this book feels deeply necessary, the one person who will be so grateful you did not give into your thoughts today and decide not to write because the writing felt 50 Shades of Hard.
(Of course it was hard, so what? You can do hard things. You’ve done a thousand hard things in your life to this point, haven’t you?)
With every author -- every book -- that you’re grateful for, you must also acknowledge that someone out there may also one day be grateful for the work you’re doing right now.