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Start With What is in Front of You

by Nick Jaina
December 3, 2018 

The only way forward is to engage with whatever is in front of you.

If you want to write a space opera and your computer screen is dusty, I encourage you to deal with the dust on your computer screen. Dealt with it by brushing it off and also writing about it. Brush it away with the sleeve of your hoodie, then decide that you probably shouldn't be using such coarse fabric on your expensive computer. Look for that little screen-cleaning cloth you got seven months ago, even though you can't even remember where you put it. Search through drawers and bags for it. You must find this cloth. This is the quest of writing. This is the hero's journey. Like any hero, you are trying to escape the agitation of your current moment, even though it is more work to do so than to just stay complacent. Heroes don't stay complacent. They search the great wide world for that soft micro-woven cloth that cleans screens. They keep searching for it even after looking in the seven most likely places and finding nothing except that crumpled up letter warning of unpaid tolls in Wisconsin and Eesh even a great hero doesn't have the courage to deal with that.

At least you have engaged with what is most present in your world. You didn't ignore the dust. You faced the problem, and like with any hero's quest, you won't actually complete the original task in the way you hoped, but you might end up conquering your own fear. Joseph Campbell wrote about this, after he brushed the dust off his archaic word processor. In your case, you wrote about the problem of the dusty screen, turning the problem against itself like two mirrors facing each other, and that exponentially compounding presence is what brings you the fertility and abundance we know of as the creative spark.

It can also drive you insane, so stand back from the mirrors a bit.

Step one of the writing process is to clean off your screen, or your glasses, or to trim your fingernails, or organize your desk. When we have allowed ourselves time to write, what we tell everyone we are intent on doing, we notice all these little chores that now feel so important. This can be deflating because we realize there will always be more chores. We could keep finding more grout to scrub clean, we could pick the lint off all our shirts. It will never end.

But we know that writing is presence. Writing cannot be about running away from something. That won't ever work. Face the grubby screen of your laptop not as a chore but as part of the engagement with writing. If you must clean the screen, clean it good. Track down that cloth, even if it's at your sister's house across town. Walk the dog that is at your hip, pressing her face into you, dreaming of a forest of squirrels, wondering why you stare at the glowing rectangle that angers you so, instead of frolicking with her in the mists of the natural world. Engage with those things, and write about them. If you feel you are abandoning the space opera, just remember that engagement with one thing is engagement with everything. The space opera is the dust on the screen, it is the fingernails, it is the impatient dog. We are all made of the same material, and every tremble in one section is felt in all the other parts. If you pick up one part of a blanket, you pick up the whole blanket, even if you didn't put your hands on every part.

The sinking feeling of hopelessness of never being able to get our mind to face our project, that is what we can let go of by writing about whatever is in front of us.

After all, you don't actually know what you're writing about, even if you think you do. Even if you've told all your friends you're writing a space opera, and your friends have told their friends, and you run into someone at the coffee shop who asks you how that space opera is going. The project you've decided on isn't a death sentence. You can write about the space opera by writing about whatever comes up foremost in your consciousness. Writing is presence. It is engagement. For one small, dust-sized example, I had no idea what I was going to write about when I started this letter, and all I could think about was the dust on my laptop screen, and here we are.

Now, to finally find that cloth.