Sunday, April 01, 2007

Rough Water

How can I describe the difficulty that I've had writing over the past few weeks?

Without warning, I hit a patch of rough water where the waves were suddenly too high and the distance to shore too great.

One day the fog thickened, and I couldn't see a way in front of me, and I still don't know where the rough water came from... or what may have caused it.

Maybe it was the increasingly intense pain from a molar's inflamed nerve... which led, eventually, to a root canal?

Or maybe it was simply the result of working too hard and too long on too many projects without any visible signs of making headway?

Or perhaps it was simply a dormant period, a time when I needed to accept that something was happening beneath the surface, even if I wasn't able to see or feel it happening?

Whatever the cause... for days I tried writing, but nothing seemed to hold my interest.

Instead, I left my office and went to the movies, hoping to rid myself of this malaise, this fog, or returned home and flicked to reruns of MASH, or turned off the TV and simply stared out the window at the passing clouds.

Other writers (and bloggers) have suffered similar fits of despair, I know. Sarah writing as A. Fortis at Finding Wonderland ( wrote recently of her loss of confidence in the face of an editor's silence. And Meghan at Blue Rose Girls ( described her frustration over the negative comments of an anonymous writer to one of her posts.

I read about their struggles to write, and, despite trying to keep myself afloat, felt like I was sinking, too, exhausted, wrung dry, so to speak, with no hope of ever finding a life raft or reaching open water again.

Then, without warning, the sun burned through the fog... and the clouds lifted... and, once the sky cleared, I could see sunlight glistening on the water.

And I was swimming again with the same enthusiasm and passion as before I hit the patch of rough water.

That transition from smooth water to rough and back again happened in a mysterious blur... with no storm-alert warning of rough water's approach and no signal that the danger had passed.

The rough water came out of nowhere. And then, just as mysteriously, I was through it... as if I'd never been in rough water at all.

I have no idea what I might have done differently to avoid that rough patch of water. Maybe there was nothing that I could have done differently.

But, looking back, there was a moment when (I realize now) I had to accept that I was struggling in rough water, and, somehow, had to recognize, too, that the struggle was part of a larger process beyond my control.

Not only did I have to accept that I was in rough water, I had to believe that I'd find a way out eventually (even when hope seemed slim), and I had to trust that one day the rough water would be behind me.

That moment of acceptance and trust--or perhaps I should say surrender--was the key to surviving the rough patch of water this time, I think.

But why?

Why does surrendering--letting go of expectations and hope--allow one to make progress, while fighting back only inhibits one's work? (And why is fighting back at other times the only option?)

Sally Kempton writes in Yoga Journal (March, 2007) about coming to such an impasse this way:
You are trying as best you can to make something happen, and you're failing. You realize that you simply cannot do whatever it is you want to do, cannot win the battle you're in, cannot complete the task, cannot change the dynamics of the situation. At the same time, you recognize that the task must be completed, the situation must change. In that moment of impasse, something gives in you, and you enter either a state of despair or a state of trust. Or sometimes both: One of the great roads to the recognition of grace leads through the heart of despair itself.
And then she goes on to explain that "most transformational moments--spiritual, creative, or personal--involve this sequence of intense effort, frustration, and then letting go."

So, maybe, it's not a decision made with the intellect to "let go," but rather something that happens instinctively on a gut level.

And, maybe, the rough water is actually part of a larger process "by which a human being," as Kempton suggests, "breaks out of the cocoon of human limitation and becomes willing on the deepest level to open to the infinite power that we all have in our core."

All I can tell you is that the instinct to keep writing is as mysterious--and inexplicable--as the rough water that threatens to drown it out on occasion, and I'm glad that the rough water's behind me... and that I can see my way clear again.

But I can't delude myself. Ahead, I know, I'll find myself swimming through rough water again. And when I reach another impasse, I'll have to engage in the same process, deciding on some level whether to surrender or fight back.

That's simply what writing--and living--requires, I think, day after day, year after year.

When you hit a patch of rough water, what helps you swim through it?

Let us know if you get a chance. Your experience might help other writers stay afloat the next time they hit rough water lurking ahead.

For more information about Sally Kempton, visit:
You can also read more of her articles at


a. fortis said...

Great piece, Bruce! Thanks for the link to Sally Kempton.

The one thing I can think of that helps a bit with the rough waters--besides the MASH reruns!--is trying to find another outlet for my energy. That could entail letting out my frustration through some kind of physical activity or exercise, like a good long gym workout. Or it could mean letting my creativity out in some form that's not necessarily related to writing--painting, cooking, whatever--something that helps me feel less blocked on a fundamental level.

Bruce said...


Isn't Sally Kempton wonderful? And, yes, you're so right... physical activity can help.

Practicing yoga, with its combination of emotional, spiritual, and physical activities was what helped most, I think, over the past few weeks.

And, it was my yoga teacher, Rita Knorr, who brought the Kempton article to my attention.

You can read some of Rita's thoughts on yoga at her website:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Jack said...

Seems like some of those strategies mentioned are mine, too. I do lots of walking when I'm at some sort of impasse in my writing. And if I'm not ready to do any writing when I get back, I often turn to watercolor painting. Maybe days or weeks go by like this. It may be one of those left brain-right brain stretching exercises. You've got to work all the muscle groups. Painting lets me take a breather from the sort of logic that writing seems more heavily dependent on.

Bruce said...

Remember the Sonya Sones interview with Wordswimmer? I think she mentioned walking, too... almost as a way of meditating.
Watercolor painting sounds like just the antidote for the muscles required to write. Do you know Winslow Homer's work? He's one of my favorites.