The Dirty, Messy Part of a Writer’s Life

I had a real job once. Before becoming a writer, I worked for a nonprofit where we all learned that the best work is the kind that costs you something. And I'm still learning that lesson today.

Slum Shadow

For me, this job of being a writer is not just about the writing. It’s about the difference-making.

I believe in words, in the power and potential they possess, that what we say is significant and it’s up to us to share our stories. But I also believe there comes a time when you can’t just write about life. You have to live it. Even when it scares you half to death.

That’s what today was about.

The lives we live become the stories we tell

A good writer is more than a scribe. She doesn’t just catalogue people’s stories; she endeavors to live one herself.

Shaun taking pictures

And the good news is we all have a story to tell. The challenge isn’t learning to tell it; it’s embracing the conflict necessary to make the story happen in the first place. Because what’s a story without conflict?

What I'm trying to say is this: The times that scare us the most are the ones we should be looking for. 

Like the time two dozen kids mobbed me in Africa, nearly trampling each other in the process…

Slum kids with Jeff

Or when my friends and I were greeted by a private parade in the worst slum in Uganda…

Slum parade

Or the time I saw despair in the eyes of an HIV-positive mother worried about paying her rent.

Slum house

Oh yeah… that was all today.

Some days are like that, more than you can handle or process on your own. From time to time, we all experience things that leave us speechless, threatening to stop us in our tracks.

You don’t have to hop a plane to Africa to feel overwhelmed or occasionally want to to check out. That’s just part of being human.

Life can be hard and sometimes scary. When you’re staring pain or discomfort in the face, it’s easy to retreat. To hold back emotionally, make quiet rationalizations, and numb yourself to the pain.

But that’s exactly what we must not do.

Everything I’ve ever learned about writing (wasn't about writing)

Some people think this blog is about writing. It's not.

This is a blog about being a writer, the struggles a person faces when chasing the craft and how to overcome them. And every time I think I'm learning something new about writing, it ends up being a lesson about life.

lamott writing

A few that came to mind today, as I walked through the streets of Kampala wondering what to make of everything:

  1. When you start to feel afraid, press in. The good stuff happens when we least expect it.
  2. No matter what, be present. The tricky part of life (and the secret to art) is paying attention — embracing the everyday, imperfect right-now, and then making something of it.
  3. Get dirty often. Every first draft is ugly, all good writing is rewriting, and a great life comes from making mistakes. The point is to get on with it.

So what do I do as a crowd of children rushes towards me, shouting, “Muzungu, muzungu!”? Or when my arms give out from swinging these little ones around and round as they scream for more? Or when I start to shut down from sensory overload and my own sense of inadequacy?

Do I retreat, look for the door, daydream about dinner?

Sometimes I do all of that. But I also try to remember that this was what I signed up for. When I set out to make art, I didn’t want clean and safe and comfortable. I wanted something real. Raw and gritty and true.

Slum baby

As I finish my day, the dirt I scrub off the palms that shook a hundred hands reminds me I did my job today. I showed up, got dirty, and did some things that scared me.

What we avoid is what makes us grow

For all of us, there are moments we'd rather avoid. Maybe it’s the baby waking up the third time in a row before sunrise or the intimidation of a blank page, but we all get scared sometimes.

And that’s okay, as long as we don't get stuck.

When discomfort comes, we’re tempted to rush through, thinking tomorrow will be better. But this moment is not an inconvenience or a setback. It's the best stuff life has to over.

Slum Sewer

Somewhere in the mud of life, whether it's cleaning baby puke off your shoulder or trying not to freeze up in the slums of Africa, there’s something both to savor and struggle with.

Long before the resolution, we learn an important virtue: don't quit.

Jump into the mess

Shaun said something to me today after we finished meeting the mom with HIV, and it's still turning around in my head. Despite everything Compassion has done for her and all the measures they've taken to help her, it just isn't working.

Slum family

In a moment of honesty, he admitted:

This compassion stuff is messy. It’ll rip your heart out.

What do we do when words are not enough, when plan falls apart and you’re wondering whether this was something you were called to? Maybe that's the wrong question to ask.

Anybody can do nothing. It’s normal to give in to paralysis and resign yourself to inaction. But that’s not what makes for a great story.

What great writers do, and maybe great people, is step into the mess. They do the difficult job of caring, not just about what they do but who they do it for. And that's rare but courageous choice.

Slum kids

Which is why I don’t hesitate to encourage you to sponsor one of these children and why I feel comfortable sharing these thoughts with you on a blog supposedly about writing.

Because writing, as much as I love it, isn’t enough.

What good is art without a life to support it? And what good is a life without a story to guide it? [Tweet that]

Slum parade

So whether you make art or not, whether you pen words or paint pictures, you are making a life. And an important question, perhaps the question to ask, is what is it costing you? What uncomfortable thing are you doing today?

How are you pressing into fear, being present, and getting your hands dirty in the process? Answer that, and you've got a story to tell your grandchildren.

A good place to start, one that I have seen visible, tangible evidence of would be to sponsor a child through Compassion.

Slum children

Despite how small $38/month may seem, it makes a tremendous difference in the life of a child. I saw the evidence today in the lives of slum children who now have school uniforms and books and a hope that defies circumstances.

I have been changed by it, and I hope you are, too. (If you do, shoot me an email — I want to personally thank and congratulate you. I also have a small gift for you.)

Note: I'm in Africa this week on a trip with a group of bloggers. You can read other updates by Emily, The Nester, Joy, Shaun, and Bri.

What does stepping into the mess of life look like for you? Share in the comments.

Photos by Mike Varel.