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The Wonderful, Horrible Tension of Writing


As I sit at my desk this morning, with deadlines looming, family members vying for attention, and my own to-do list extending off the page, I am keenly aware of the “tension of writing.” I am referring to the moments leading up to jotting down actual words on a paper or typing on the screen. It is that space and time, whether months, weeks, days, hours or minutes that come before the actual writing. It’s the place in your brain where all the ideas swirl and engage in a life or death battle with the critical doubter that lives in all our heads. This push-pull of creativity is uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful.


Writers face this tension before a big project, and every morning as we continue to write words, sentences, and pages that we are never sure will measure up to our internal critic’s harsh and high bar. Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) refers to this tension as the place where we battle “the resistance” – that universal force inside that keeps us from living our best lives (and writing our next book).


Writers are not the only people who face this tension. Tension is the area between the old and the new–a nonsolid environment everyone must traverse to make a change in their lives. In the tension, all victories and defeats exist together, circling and tangled in a dance. In Pressfield’s words, “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”


The opening in time that holds the tension between life and death is also the fertile soil from which all things sprout. If we are to make a change in a relationship, job, domicile, education, or spiritual beliefs, we must face the tension first. The tension is most often uncomfortable, and thus change uncomfortable.


We enter the tension with a question. Is this what I want? Should I move? What courses should I take? Is this what I really want? Will my current path take me where I want to go? Will this story work. Can I? Should I? Once we ask the question, we enter the realm of tension. Our minds battle out lists of pros and cons with the yearnings and knowings of the heart and soul. All of this can happen in a moment or a year of dancing with the tension. But in the end, we either recede into the known, weak from the battle and unable or unwilling to step forward, or we chose, we commit, we engage.


The instant we commit, the tension recedes into the background until we need it to embrace the tango of creativity or battle the dragons of imagination again.


The most rewarding flashes for an author is when the tension becomes a dance floor, where we willingly stroll out, knowing the music will carry us to each new thought and words flow fluidly. The hardest moments are when we march forward to face the dragons of prose or poetry, knowing our weapons inadequate, but refusing to back down anyway. But the worst times, by far, in any writer’s life is when we choose not to engage at all. When we try to avoid the discomfort of the tension completely, fearing participation and writing becomes only a wish. The same is true for all endeavors in life.


Don’t believe you are alone in facing the tension. Remember, tension is universal and step in. Decide to battle, and sometimes you’ll dance, but the tension is necessary, and in the end, you’ll reap the reward.

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