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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Finishing a book and finding silence: I don't have to write to be alive.

Ben Goshow

There are four official weeks left of summer for us. And we have gloriously little on our family calendar. Yesterday, I spent more than an hour turning rope in the driveway, the other end of the rope hanging looped and knotted around our front porch railing. “What muscle am I working when I turn rope for the kids?” I asked Ryan last night before bed. Turns out I’ll have bulging shoulder muscles - on my right side.

People naturally ask how the summer is going when I bump into them at church or in the neighborhood. I’d like to say that this summer has been busy, but as soon as I tell them how busy I’ve been, they’ll probably feel as I do when I hear other people complain about their self-important lives. Yawn.

I did finish a book. And this much continues to prove true: a writer loves most, not the act of writing, but the accomplishment of having written. Oh, I suppose the writing wasn’t that bad either – minus the Saturdays when Ryan, James (our nephew), and the kids would pile into the car and head off somewhere fun, and I’d remain at home, holed up in the office, despondently wearing pajama pants until noon.

Two kind friends read the manuscript for me before I attempted a draft of the final chapter and turned it in by my August 1st deadline. Their feedback, independent of each other, was similar: the writing was good but the organization of the ideas, well, ­found wanting. (PS, this was the working title of my book, but it has now been abandoned in favor of another title. Keep reading.)

This wonderfully honest feedback prompted an all-out Annie Dillard style week of revision. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, describes how she would often organize and re-organize the hand-written pages she composed. She would lay them out on a table and move them around, trying out different sequences of thought. (I’d quote from that section of her book, but despite my wandering aimlessly around the house this morning in the pre-dawn quiet, I can’t find the book.)

A process similar to Dillard’s once worked for me in graduate school in my creative writing class. The project was a series of ten written snapshots of someone we knew well. After we’d written the snapshots (of varying lengths), we were supposed to take the ten pages, throw them up into the air, and let them fall, picking them up in a random order.

It worked. A natural, unforced order emerged.

I didn’t try this with my 150 book manuscript pages, but I did print out every single chapter, one by one, and line up each of the pages across my office floor. Visually, it allowed me to see each individual section of the chapter: which sections were too long? Too short? Did the titles of each of these different sections work for what I was really trying to say?

And what was I really trying to say?

It will sound like an obvious question. And shouldn’t every writer have this figured out before beginning?

But writing is a lot like life, faith even. You don’t always know where you’re headed when you set out.

Two years ago almost, I started a blog. I wrote it for myself. It was a spiritual discipline, a means of slowing my life from the rapid blur it had become, a way of growing into skills of awareness. Writing when the house slept and thinking about the ground under my feet became a way for me to live more prayerfully, more gratefully, even more fearlessly. And I am grateful for all this - astounded really, that this writing became a book. I hope you’ll read that book. (PS, it’s now officially titled: Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith. It will release next summer.)

But I am also grateful that writing is not the entirety of my life. I finished a book. And have since enjoyed a bit of silence. I think I'm also learning that I don’t have to write to be fully alive.

A long-distance friend messaged me recently on Facebook to ask if I’m becoming a recluse. She must have wondered since I’ve been so inactive on social media most of the summer. I imagine you, faithful blog readers, must have given me up for dead.

But I’m here. Alive. Turning rope in my driveway. And yes - writing, too.