WHERE I WRITE #17: From a Place of “Yes”


 (Well, at least for the next two weeks, anyway.)

Yesterday I had kind of a break-through therapy session, and although I don’t typically share what happens on the couch, I am doing so this time because the session ended with my therapist prescribing the following assignment: For two weeks until I see her again, I must say “yes” to every first creative thought, and ignore all the neurotic after-thoughts that ritually conspire to kill the initial ones and effectively shut me down.

“Instead of psychoanalyzing the reasons behind why you have a habit of succumbing to those follow-up thoughts,” my therapist suggested, “what do you say we just try changing the habit for a couple of weeks?” Oh, my god – you can just do that?? Well, I’m about to find out.

This is the first creative thought that came to me today, and by writing it, I am dutifully following through on my assignment. Hooray.

I’ll admit, though, that it’s a steep challenge to shut out the follow-up thoughts, such as: Who the fuck cares? Just who do you think you are? Why are you writing about the challenge of writing when you could be working on some of the other more concrete (not to mention commercial) ideas you’ve had cluttering your brain for YEARS, which people would probably enjoy more? Of course, then you’d have to decide which of the other possibilities to execute first. The one most likely to sell? Or the one you’re burning to write? You should really aim low and just write this as a blog post – although, come to think of it, no one reads your blog. Why do you have a tumblr anyway? You’re 46. Grow up.

I realize it is possibly cheating on my shrink’s assignment for me to display those secondary thoughts for you here.  But let’s agree to cut me some slack so I can provide you with the full picture of what I’m up against. Every. Fucking. Day. Okay? Maybe you can relate.

Yes, I do this to myself daily. On most mornings, I hike up a sort of mini-mountain behind my house in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. It’s a 45-minute hike, round-trip, which turns out to provide not only exactly as much aerobic activity as I need to maintain my weight, but also just enough time for me to birth what feels like a really strong idea, and then kill it good and dead before I return to the wooden gate that leads into my back yard. It happens again and again these days, almost without fail.

It wasn’t always that way. Some of my best ideas, the ones I’ve followed through on in my life, have come to me while walking by myself, whether in the quiet woods or the bustling, noisy, narrow streets of Chinatown. One time, when I was jogging through the East River Park, I felt compelled to call my answering machine from a pay phone so I could record a story idea that came up. I got home, wrote it as an essay, and soon after, placed it in an anthology. So, there was a time when I trusted my instincts. I was never gangbusters about it; ambivalence and self-doubt were always factors. But I had some amount of confidence in the ideas that percolated, and almost every time I just went with them, it paid off.

But then…I hit my 40s. People in my life started asking, “When are you going to publish your own book already?” Already. What an awful, disappointment-saturated word – one I’d already sent knocking around my brain on my own, thank you very much. Not that those people in my life deserve any blame for my writer’s block. I am not blaming them – they say those things with the best of intentions, to be encouraging. The implied message is, “When do I get to read your book? I can’t wait! I know it will be good!” No, it’s my own expectations of myself, and my fear of taking a chance unless I’m guaranteed a positive outcome, that make me hear their encouragement all wrong, and perpetuate the neurotic bullshit that keeps me in the business of repeatedly conceiving and then aborting what are probably at least decent ideas.

And so, as I ascend Joppenbergh Mountain each moring, huffing and puffing up the steep rocky incline, some new idea for an essay – or an approach to one of the books I have started and not finished – dawns on me. My pace quickens as my brain fires off it off and it begins to develop. Somewhere near the summit, though, I get ahead of myself. I imagine where I might publish this brilliant essay I just conjured. I consider a few publications, and then start wondering how I’d need to tailor the piece to fit each of them. And do I know any editors at any of those publications? Do I even know anyone who knows anyone? I haven’t been good about keeping up my relationships with editors. Why haven’t I been good about that? I should have been good about that. How am I going to even get anyone to read this? And even if they do, will they like it? I mean, it’s not that original an idea. It would need to be funny anyway, and I’m not that funny. You know, it’s harder than ever to get things published these days…

Thus begins my descent, back down the mountain, and into the dark side of this regular exercise in futility.

But not today. Today I did not let myself hike the mountain until I took the first creative thought and wrote. And so begins my two-week tour of the land of “yes.”

Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →