Stop Waiting to Measure Up: Write Now

February 2, 2014 | By | 16 Replies More

haislip_houseWaiting to write because you don’t think you’ve lived enough is a terrible mistake.

There was a five-year stretch in my early 20s when I did not write. If you’d asked me what I was up to, I would’ve said that I was waiting for life—big-L Life, interesting life—to happen. I actually remember scribbling this sentence in a journal: I want to write books, but I don’t think I’m interesting enough to fill a page.

My paralysis was a comparison problem.  Even unimportant parts of my life didn’t escape my scrutiny. When I visited someone, I had a furtive habit of comparing their refrigerators’ contents with mine. I didn’t go out of my way to open someone else’s fridge, but I’d quickly glance over as the refrigerator door was opened and shut.

Was their fridge cleaner than mine? Stray lettuce bits are always shellacked to the bottom of my crisper drawer. Was their food neatly arranged? I was forever discovering half-eaten containers of sour cream and quarter-used onions tucked behind milk containers.

If you picture me giving someone’s refrigerator the sneaky side-eye, it’s funny. But this habit of constantly wondering if I measured up, of mirroring my life with others’, was enough to keep me from ever writing a word. In my estimation, my life was too boring for me to be a good writer.

Have you ever felt this way? You want your writing to matter, to measure up somehow, so you sit back and wait for something—anything at all—to happen to you. Then I’ll start that book, you think. I’ll fill it with all the interesting people I’m about to meet, all the adventures I’ll have. Someday.

Or maybe you sift your past experiences, hoping to turn up something with unexpected gravitas. You may jot down a memory or two, but the writing ends there.

The internal dialogue of a writer trapped in the teeth of my-life-isn’t-interesting syndrome goes like this:

Maybe I’ll write about the family vacation when we had to evacuate before Hurricane Emily, I’d say.

What about it? Got any memories worth sharing from that?

Well, okay. How about the—

Don’t bother.

haislip_headshotI would have continued this damning dialogue indefinitely, but for the house on Fall Mountain Lake.

At first, it was attractive, a white Cape with a two-car garage and granite countertops. New appliances. New windows. Fresh paint. My husband and I moved in on October 15, 2010.  A week later, it rained. Driven by harsh west winds, rain poured through those new windows. It had been a dry fall, and we watched in horror as the fresh paint bubbled up with water.

Then, more problems popped up. When a man came to repair our stove, the 220v outlet caught fire as he tried to plug the stove back in. The wires in the well pump caught fire soon after that. The basement walls—the walls­—leaked, then flooded during spring thaw. The fridge and the dishwasher and the oil tank went kaput.

And worst of all, the skritching we’d been hearing over our heads in the master bedroom, in the space between the ceiling and the roof, was bats, coming home, to our home, to roost. They’d roll in, about a dozen of them, with a quick, mothlike flutter of wings, promptly at 5:45am.

One afternoon, in the midst of the bats, a coworker said, “You should write a book about your house.”

The statement was startling. Should I?

“I should.” I laughed the suggestion off, but inside, my heart was jumping. “It’d read like fiction.”

I got home that evening and announced to the family room, “I’m finally going to write something!”

No one answered. Husband was in the backyard, mowing the lawn.

Convinced that I’d finally unearthed something interesting (someone else had said so!), I sat down, and finally—finally—began to write. I set out to tell stories about the house, but instead, memories of my childhood home on the Jersey Shore came tumbling out. A series of short stories followed. I wrote poetry. I started The Procrastiwriter. Months passed, and I waited to wash up on the shore of this magnificent novel about my house. But those particular words never showed up.

After a year, it became apparent that a story about my dyspeptic white house was probably not going to burst forth then, if ever. But by then, it was too late—the writing tap was stuck open, and I couldn’t close it, not even with my old insecurity. Instead, I reread what I’d done, and holy hell, some of it was actually interesting.

Lesson? Just starting was key. Everything else was secondary.

I try not to dwell on what would’ve happened if I’d abandoned the idea that my life had to measure up to some standard earlier. I’m just happy I’m writing.  I’ll probably never be able to get that lettuce out from under the bottom of the crisper drawer in the fridge.

I still wonder if my life is a bit boring for a real writer. And it’s funny how the words can silenced by simple insecurity, by doubt, by the writer’s need to measure up to something, somehow. If you let it—and this takes courage—writing always comes through the cracks.

It might surprise you, and it will be good enough.


Shanan Haislip is a full-time business writer, essayist and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about being a writer around a full-time life (without going insane). She still lives in the white house on Fall Mountain Lake. Follow The Procrastiwriter on Facebook or on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.



Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (16)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. The Biggest Lie Aspiring Writers Believe | The Procrastiwriter | February 26, 2014
  1. Chris says:

    I had to laugh, but I feel your pain. We too bought a lovely white house, although ours was old and in need of updating. The first time it rained I woke up with drops splashing on my face. Then the well went dry while the basement flooded. But it was the bats scrabbling in the walls that almost did me in.
    One night my husband waited until they flew out from under the eaves for an evening of hunting. Then he climbed up and blocked the entrance hole into our attic.
    The next morning we woke to hundreds of bats hanging from our gutters. For weeks they tried to get back into the house any way they could, and some managed to find a way in. Many times I lay on the couch, blanket over my head, while my husband tried to chase them back outside. It was Nightmare on Hazelnut Ln.
    Now the bats all live in the machine shed. Our vehicles are covered in guano and moth wings and I have to bite my tongue every time someone tells me how wonderful bats are.
    I haven’t yet tried to write about any of this, but I’m pretty sure bats will show up in one of my picture book manuscripts someday.
    Thanks for your blog post. I really enjoyed your story and your inspiration.

    • Shanan says:

      oh my God, Chris, I laughed so hard at your description! And I so feel your pain with the house issues, although I’ve never had it rain on my face (not yet, anyway)!

      Thank you for reading my article, and THANK YOU for your commiseration and hilarious bat story. It really made my day!

  2. Thanks for the inspiration, Shanan. I’m loving the comments as well. Since most of us find ourselves rather uninteresting, it’s hard to accept that it’s our uniqueness, poured into our writing, that makes our words worth reading. Our personalities, our inner dialogue, our hopes and fears. Humans are more alike than they are different and these points of connection…touchstones, my favorite author Earl Hamner calls them…are what moves us. When another describes what we feel, we are not alone.

    Well done!

  3. Mary Latela says:

    Shanah ~
    They say we should write about what we know, but if our surroundings and even the people we bump into every day seem rather dull? Here’s a question which starts me thinking, then leads to writing: What’s a little off here? What’s little crazy about my life? What friends drive me bananas and which keep me comfortable in my flannel pajamas. Remember the kids’ activity, what doesn’t belong here? That may be the one thing that starts the wheels turning …. voila! well, after a time, you have a manuscript. I really appreciate your essay here.

  4. Shanan – those are extraordinary images and a universal tale. I wanted to write something wonderful and lasting. I dreamed of writing something profound and because that seemed so far away (as did interesting), I wrote nothing on and off, on and off. Like you, I find it so much more enjoyable to be writing ANYTHING then to dream of writing THE thing. Thanks for putting into words what so many of us have feared…who said “Comparison is the thief of joy?”

  5. Lisa Hassan says:

    I smiled the entire time I read this piece for I could relate with much of what you wrote. I too had a writing hiatus in my early twenties for about a few years, and not until I read this did It dawn on me that I’m sure my insecurity of being any good was at the source.
    I too compared myself constantly… At times I still do. Your sharing of comparing your fridge to others cracked me up. I totally get it. I compared myself to strangers, friends, family…any one and everyone from wardrobe to living spaces to education levels, to looks…cars, everything. Never having much as a child or even not much more than average as an adult either this level of comparison stifled me. The introduction of creative non fiction changed my compulsive journal writing into something more…and now I have a voice to help with my thoughts. Thank you for this piece. Very inspiring.

  6. Chelsea says:

    It’s our inner life that counts. We can only ever write from our inner world. It’s the only one that exists for us… I know that’s a bit Zen, but it’s true. Even the most adventurous life can sound dull if told by someone who was there but ‘missed it completely’. On the other hand, a simple bus trip can be an enigmatic and mind-blowing thing if we notice what’s around us and really take life in. Thanks for the inspirational read 🙂

  7. Vivienne Nichols says:

    A few weeks ago, my 95 year old mother insisted I sit down because she had something to tell me. “I am going to be a writer,” said she! The hitch is vision…not for her goal, it’s her eyesight. She needed a scribe. I’ve stepped up and we’re documenting her memoirs, one memory a day! We’re having a delightful time. When she lies awake at night, she writes nursery rhymes in her head for her great-grands and we record them the next day! Isn’t it wonderful that she’s NOW realizing that she might have something interesting to share & that we can re-invent ourselves at any point along life’s journey. She engaged, enlightened, energetic and evolving. (Unfortunately, she has given up the idea of politics. She told me some time back she was just too old to campaign, but if she were in her 80s she says she might’ve considered…) What spunk, spirit and inspiration. Like you!

  8. Really lovely essay, Shanan, with an excellent take-away: “Lesson? Just starting was key. Everything else was secondary.” I think many people wait for inspiration instead of just getting to started — I know I have been guilty of that! Thank you for sharing.

  9. Vicki T. Lee says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am 52 years old, a nursing assistant to pay the bills and the writer you describe in this article. It’s not that I haven’t written. I’ve written for two print newspapers, I currently write for an online source and maintain my blog. I desperately want to have a short story published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Mag. I’ve got a computer hard drive full of stories that I actually like while I was writing them. I walk away, and when I come back, they don’t feel good enough. I’m having trouble trusting my own judgment, trusting that I’m exciting enough, or have the right language to be noticed. I could probably go on and on. But I wanted to thank you for this article.

  10. Smoph says:

    As a 20-something writer, I felt a bit the sam; it’s why I have been tending towards speculative fiction worlds where I could make it up.

    But I’ve moved countries recently and just the travel has been enough to get me started on writing a novel-sized story that I haven’t finished yet. Sometimes, I think it’s being outside of normal routines that can convince us otherwise.

    Great to hear others suffering the (terribly) silent inner words of “You’re not ggod enough because…” Thank you also for the kick in the behind to get moving on more writing.

  11. Randy Kraft says:

    Interesting theme happening here. I just wrote about the same subject and other bloggers are also clarifying the concept that one must write one must knows, but that doesn’t mean one’s own struggles, rather the learning, the passion, the pain, and the meaning of life. No, one does not have to struggle to write, and the more distance we maintain between our own heartache and the writing, the better. Thanks.

    • Shanan says:

      That’s a really interesting point, Randy. I think the biggest reason I haven’t written about my house is because I’m not yet sure what the meaning of it is. I still live here. I don’t know how the story ends, and I’m not always confident that I’ve learned something (besides how to spot problems and fix an awful lot of things!). Just like you say, all that writing would be is an account of struggle.

      Those other subjects I mentioned, however, are closed books in my life. There’s passion there, acceptance, and even some meaning. In a way, that makes more sense. I’m glad to hear that you and other bloggers are tackling this; there are some serious gaps in the age-old advice given to new writers that can often leave them unfocused. Thanks for reading 🙂

  12. Hi Shanan

    Thanks for your article. I hate the perception that in order to be a good writer you have to be a tortured soul, or have experienced great and terrible difficulties in your life. I have a pretty normal life, but that doesn’t stop me from being able to imagine other worlds, other circumstances, other types of people and the ways they react and interact with the world around them, and write about them. So I totally agree with you, and I am not waiting to write any longer – I wrote my first work of fiction last year and am forging ahead with its sequel despite being a very “ordinary” person!

    Thanks for voicing thoughts similar to my own in relation to how life affects writing. I have never had any “extreme” life experiences, but that does not mean I can’t write about anything I like in a convincing way.

    • Shanan says:

      Thanks, CH! I, too, am fairly ordinary, and it’s nice to hear of other writers having success in mining their otherwise “ordinary” milieu and still finding themselves able to imagine, to dream, to build brand-new universes without the influence of greatly exaggerated personal circumstances. It gives me hope 🙂

Leave a Reply