Wild Thing: On Writing and Not Writing

February 25, 2016 § 21 Comments


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Andrea Jarrell

By Andrea Jarrell

After 30 years of sitting at a desk, making my living as a writer, I truly appreciate how physical writing is: pushing pen across paper, fingers tapping a keyboard, the trapezius knot balling up just above my right shoulder-blade, tender to the touch.

There’s the quickened pulse and rapid breath as I free-write, afraid my hand won’t move fast enough to pin all the wings of flighty thoughts to the page. And the itch-I-can’t-quite-scratch writing of an essay when the draft is getting closer and closer—akin to the verge of sexual climax—urging me to focus and let go at the same time, to arrive at what I mean to say. And then, like a safecracker turning tumblers, there is the satisfying click I feel in my gut when I know the prose I’ve written for one of my university clients will indeed move donors to tears, reminding them of why they love their alma mater and compelling them to make a gift.

When I first started writing marketing copy, getting words right for clients was enough of a creative high for me. My own stories lay suppressed within me, mostly because I didn’t know how to get them out. As I practiced my personal writing, my essays began to duel with my professional writing for time and attention, tugging me like sides of a wishbone ready to snap.

Building creative and physical stamina for both kinds of writing came gradually. For a few years now, I’ve balanced a healthy roster of clients while also publishing essays and finishing a memoir. But recently, my equilibrium was upset all over again in a way I never anticipated.

As I sat at my desk puzzling through a particularly challenging client strategy, knowing I had two more reports to write, new ideas for personal essays surfaced, one after the other, as uncontrollable as a coughing fit. Unable to give my creative work its due, my hands trembled. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a pair of scissors lying on my desk. As if the swirl of words fighting their way out of me compelled some physical act, I wanted to reach for the scissors and hack off a bit of my hair. Imagining the shiver of grating blades, I wondered what my clients would think of their silk dress-wearing consultant, always so in control in meetings, going a little nutty.

Something wild within me struggled against a harness; I felt I might cry out. Recalling a video I’d seen of a fox caught in a trap, its shriek echoing in the woods, my tears began to brim. There, there, little fox, I tried to calm myself, promising to return soon to set this wild thing free.

Back in the wishbone days, the challenge was to turn from the ferocity of a work project – all rushing, roaring mental river – to tap into the trickle of my personal writing. I had no idea that, one day, I would have to suppress the flow of my personal work in order to get my client projects done.

The bodily ache of suppressing my personal writing has revealed just how physically dependent I’ve become. When I don’t have time and space to get the words within me down on the page, I’m the runner who can’t sit still when denied her daily miles. My body feels a driving pressure to form sentences and get paragraphs out into the world as urgently as it once felt contractions pushing my two children towards their inevitable births.

It is these children – nearly grown now – whose college tuitions I need to pay, who keep me from chucking my client reports to focus solely on my own stories. My children—and my kind-hearted husband, who trusts me to share in our bill paying—whom I thought of as I fought the urge to cut my hair. And the truth is, I’m grateful for my work-a-day harness, which keeps me disciplined and ensures I use the time for my own writing wisely. I’m also proud that I’ve built up my personal writing muscles so that my client work is no longer my dominant side. This writing body of mine now signals to me when things are out of whack.

Yes, I feel the anguish of the trapped little fox within me as I tend to tamer creatures: milking the cows (brochures to write), scattering seed for pecking chickens (conference calls to make and trains to catch). But I am also reassured by the fox’s frantic pacing because I recognize it as a sign not of endangerment, but of the new urgency and drive of my personal writing. The panting little fox tells me I have more to say, more to write. She tells me not to keep her waiting too long – to hurry back and turn the tumblers in the lock to set her free.
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Andrea Jarrell‘s essays have appeared in Narrative Magazine; The New York Times “Modern Love” column; Memoir Journal; Full Grown People; Brain, Child; The Washington Post and several anthologies, sites and publications. Her memoir I’m the One Who Got Away will be published in 2016.

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