How alive do you want to be?

How Alive Do you Want to Be? Ashley Hales


“Searching for an objectively ‘better’ home is a poor reason to live abroad.” Ta-Nehisi Coates on Twitter


They say that when you live abroad that it goes in cycles: the first year is the honeymoon year. You swoon at the language, the accent, the magic of it all. It’s like Liz Gilbert in Italy: it is bathed in golden light and you just want to eat the whole thing (and gain 20 pounds in the process). The second year, you turn into a cynic, where “home” has become multifarious and all of sudden, those endearing qualities of your honeymoon turn out to be what gets under your skin. The third year (and perhaps beyond), you’re rooted in both “home” and “away.” There is no “grass is greener.” There is just grass. No better or worse; it’s all of a piece. “Home” is perhaps wherever you are not, or wherever you are, or all places at once, or none. You give up making sense of it all, mentally translating or making pro and con lists. You just get on with the living.

So it is with writing. The love affair, the affinity for words and how they taste drips sweet; words make your tongue thick with the wanting, the way colors and phrases swirl together and go down like a rich cabernet. Then there is the green-eyed envy, where you figure that everyone else has said it already, and besides, better than you, and the muse has left. Thankfully there’s a final stage. It’s when you settle into the the work itself. To state the obvious: writers must write. The words beckon— sometimes electric like a new lover, at other times we slouch toward them sullenly like a jilted boyfriend or perhaps, we’re just a bit chummy, like a lover-turned-roommate, sitting comfortably next to you on an overstuffed couch with your matching cups of Earl Grey. The words are always there, waiting.

To be magic, writing (like love) cannot be contingent on feelings. It is the dailyness of the writing that saves. It’s the butt-in-chair chicken scratches that open up spaces in our own hardened hearts for love (and dare I say, art) to enter into the cracks. That is the good, hard and holy work. We can find a home there in the liturgy of words. Words are paltry, malleable and fickle things. They can’t be told to line up and march in circles to make beauty. They come and surprise you as you play with them day by day. It is never the end result, the publishing deal, the success, the platforms. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Anne Lamott, patron saint of holy creativity on the work of writing itself: 

“I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I spend a whole lot of time on Twitter when I’m meant to be writing. Or I write poems when I’m supposed to be turning in an essay. Or I suddenly realize that I need to do all the laundry and clean all the things. Anything but the writing itself. We put off the hard work of creation because we are scared of the quiet. We’re scared of all that writing might drudge up, all it may ask of us. We’re fearful we won’t be able to do it again, or that we will feel too deeply and then must go and do the washing-up and put in another load of laundry. And how are we supposed to follow up the glory of creation with the stuff of earth?

That’s it exactly. How do we reconcile not only the glory of creation with the reality of our laundry piles, but how do we understand those highs where we shift from what feels like holy wordplay with the unintelligible first draft? How do we combine the otherworldliness of art with the butt-in-chair discipline of it? We hide. We twiddle our thumbs, waiting for inspiration. Or we think we need the accoutrements of the writing life to prove that we are writers and creators. If you’ll allow me to be an elderly grandmother for a moment, I’ll pinch your cheeks and pass on a piece of advice. Feel free to roll your eyes. Hiding won’t help. Making it someone else’s problem because they’re better, stronger, faster, won’t help. Even “making it” will not save you from the mundane. The book deal, or the interview, or the day your blog post gets picked up and goes viral, all do not save you. There’s something in the habit of writing that saves. Let this steal over you quietly for a second: it is writing itself that saves. Writing regularly is the liturgy that brings life, in its very repetitiveness and ordinariness. Butt-in-chair writing is bread. We’re eyeing the flashy hors d’oeuvres, the decadent desserts and pass on the bread basket. Bread is not sexy, but it is full of sustenance. And really, we hunger for it.

I started writing again because something in me had died. I skated on the surface of things and just FYI, I am not a surface girl. I got sucked into square footage, vaccination arguments, the pretty little letters after my name, and the allure of organic produce — all fine things. But I could not live for the new couch, the PhD, or the green smoothie. I needed to play like a child. I needed to build sandcastles that were often rudimentary, ugly things. I needed to see what happened when I put this word with that one and played with texture. I needed to rediscover how words dance. I had had years of writing perfectly and annotating it all, like a choreographed dance routine. Now, I just needed to play. These days, when I dance in my kitchen when I’m cooking, it’s not always pretty, but there is nothing better than getting lost in a song where there is just moment, expression, and play. Writing brought me back. Writing taught me to dance again. Writing brought me home. 

Sometimes writing is nothing like the homecoming where the boy runs to meet the girl on the train. Sometimes it’s an utter disaster and you trip over your feet and you realize you’re doing moves from decades ago. That, my friend, is when you throw your head back and laugh. Who are we to take ourselves so seriously? This is what matters: it’s in the writing — and even in the failing — you have prodded a little bit of dead matter into the stuff of life. That’s it. When you create, no matter the prettiness of the product, you are coming alive. And who knows how far and wide that will travel? Who knows what ripples that will have across time and space? So I’ll ask you, how awake do you want to be? Wide awake, you say? Then celebrate your chicken scratches and your rusty dance moves and let’s get to work. 

Ashley Hales