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

24 thoughts on “How alive do you want to be?

  1. “We put off the hard work of creation because we are scared of the quiet.” YES! That is where I am. I can attest to the truth of all this – about living abroad (though my honeymoon was over a lot faster than a year) and about writing. I’m in my second year of really digging into this writing life and life is getting complicated on top of it and the words are SO hard to get out right now. Thank you for the encouragement that it gets better! And that it is the writing itself that matters not the publication. I have backed off most real attempts at publication to deal with some “life” things but I HAVE to keep writing. It is part of me and I don’t think that will ever change. Keep at it, girl. I want to read all your words!

    • Nicole, I’ve been there and I think the cycles keep cycling. Hopefully each time they come around the “getting to work part” will be longer and larger. I’m so glad to be in this writing world with you. Thank you for your presence and encouragement. It means a ton.

  2. “Writing brought me back. Writing taught me to dance again. Writing brought me home.” Ashley, when I read those words I realized that is what has happened with me! It just hit me suddenly that since I started my blog over two years ago I have really begun to come alive! Your words really hit home today. Thank you so much for this challenge to “… celebrate your chicken scratches and your rusty dance moves and let’s get to work.” I really believe is IS the writing, the everyday showing up that really does make us come alive! Blessings to you and have a great day!

    • Thank you, Gayl. It’s hard to keep showing up but it’s so important that we remember the big picture, the coming-alive part. I’m so glad to hear of your own awakening. So, so glad you’re here, Gayl.

  3. Such great words, Ashley! I’m not sure that writing brought me back to life, but it was definitely a sign of my coming back to life. Trading law for poetry and words was one of the best things for my soul. 🙂 Now to get myself sitting in the chair long enough to get the words out…

    • Thank you. It’s hard to prioritize soul-care sometimes, but I’m so glad words are helping you do that. All the best in your chair-sitting. 🙂

  4. The butt-in-chair discipline of it. That’s what I’m trying to learn. And I’m trying to learn the coming alive, no matter how pretty (or not) it may be. Because there is something about having struggled over words, about having those moments when you just want to fling them away and say “No more!” And then to come to the place where they settle down and you think “Oh. There you are.” It makes it worth it no matter how few people see them.

    • Yes, I, too, go through the flinging away of words and then they settle down and sit down nicely (sometimes). 🙂 I think the writing is worth it just to know we are not alone. The butt-in-chair discipline is hard work! Thanks Rea, for reading and being here.

  5. Ashley, your words always, *always* meet me in my point of need. Took a break from my own manuscript revisions tonight to soak in someone else’s voice, and this was just the balm and inspiration I required. Thank you. Truly.

    • Thank you, thank you, Kate. You are just too kind. I love your writing too, and your heart. I can’t wait to read your book. 🙂 I’m so thrilled this met you when you needed it.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly that the act of writing is “the good, hard and holy work” we were created to do if we’re heeding the call to write. The term “success” has come to be synonymous with publication, yet that pressure can steal the joy of writing. No matter the obstacles and difficulties it entails, I too hope to write for the sake of creating something of beauty. Thank you for sharing your journey as a writer and I hope you keep going!

    • Thank you Jo-Ann. You keep going too! Writing is writing, no matter the platform. It’s exciting to be a part of creation, whatever the form and reach. Thanks for being here, Jo-Ann.

  7. So thankful I clicked over this morning. I am here…..”How do we reconcile not only the glory of creation with the reality of our laundry piles”

    Last night closing my door on Orthodontist appts and track practice, taco Tuesday, puppy training, turning inward before I lost myself, one.more.time the words were holy water pouring over me, soaking into me.

    Thank you for helping me stand outside of the chaos and the fear and see again the art that’s creating me, for reminding me to hold my own hand as I guide myself back to my chair when the last of three walks out the door this morning.

    • I love how you talk about words as holy water. Oooh, love that. Praying you’ll have the space and time for that creation that feeds your soul, Marcy. Thank you for your comment and reading here! I do not take that lightly.

  8. And I’m hitting print. I don’t want to lose this one in the bookmarked piles. I know those stags of writing you speak of. I’m in the final one (finally)!

    • Thank you, kind one. Woo hoo for being in the final stage — at least for now. (I’m not entirely morbid, I promise.)

  9. I’m fighting with writing lately. I’m drawn to it and I’m scared of it. This touched me, thank you Ashley!

  10. When the words were many, I, mistakenly, thought this is easy. Then the words halted and were a jumble and disappeared completely and I thought, I’m wrong. I can’t do this. Why am I trying…I’m a better photographer, mama, listener, partner…(fill in the blank). Then I heard voices, much like yours, say “just write”. It is the butt in the chair discipline of it. I am finding the value in that. Not the likes, comments or stuff, but doing the work, if only for my eyes. I am more convinced were were created to create. It’s part of how we’re wired, and it’s life-breathing. Love this post, Ashley. Thanks for your commitment to create.

    • Thanks so much for reading and being here, Debby. I’m proud of your commitment to sit and do the hard work. It’s the hardest part and the best part. 🙂

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