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Flexing the Writing Muscle

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

During the past holidays I took a tiny break from writing. I spent two, maybe two and a half weeks without rummaging for topics inside my brain, or squeezing out a shitty first draft (in Anne Lamott’s immortal phrase) and deleting half of it before posting. How bad, I told myself, could a couple of weeks without writing be? For all I  knew, it might even do me good, replenishing the well-springs of my craft, giving the Muse a well earned rest, and so on.

I went ahead and took the break, but at the back of my mind there hovered that saying dear to the hearts of fitness trainers, “use it or lose it.” I told myself that what applies to muscles and sinews does not necessarily apply to the brain, and that even serious athletes take breaks from training now and then (they do, don’t they?). But no sooner had I disposed of the trainer analogy than I was beset by memories of my years of violin playing, and how terrible I sounded if I skipped just a few days of practice. Even the great 20th century violinist, Fritz Kreisler, used to say that if he went one day without playing, he could tell the difference; if he went two days, his wife knew it; and if he skipped three days, the audience noticed.

I also recalled a saying by Leonardo da Vinci (or was it by the ancient Greek painter Apelles?): nulla dies sine linea, not a day without a line, which holds for writers as well as painters. Nevertheless, I remained in holiday mode, telling myself that my anxiety about not writing was a sign of neurotic insecurity, if not more serious OCD tendencies.

Now here I am, well into January, and guess what? The trainers, Fritz Kreisler, and da Vinci (or perhaps Apelles) were right: the brain is a muscle, and it grows flaccid and weak much faster than one would expect—or at least mine does. Where once possible writing topics jostled each other inside my head, yelling pick me! pick me!, now a deathly silence reigns, as in an empty classroom when students have left for the summer. And where once each sentence smoothly elicited its successor, now when I finish a sentence it lies there inert, unable or unwilling to generate the idea that should follow.

As for the words themselves, don’t get me started. Although I am not reluctant to use the dictionary to check on the correct meaning of a word, I long ago decided against using the thesaurus, since it was too convenient a crutch and I needed the mental workout of coming up with the right term on my own. But after my recent vacation nouns, verbs, and adjectives have left my brain en masse, like bats exiting a cave at dusk, leaving me with the vocabulary of a ten-year-old.

I don’t know when or if my writing muscle will get back in shape, but in the meantime let my bitter experience be a lesson to all who write, paint, or play: don’t let a single day go by without a sentence, a line, or a note, because if you do you’ll be sorry. The arts, for all their beauty and apparent simplicity, are jealous taskmasters, and they are more tolerant of imperfection than they are of absence.



16 Responses

  1. On the other hand, I used to have a quote over my desk that said the best thing a writer can do is cultivate leisure. I like that one for us type A folks.

  2. Beautifully written, of course. For my writing group this week, I worked and worked. Then fixed the project by throwing out 80 percent.
    Jan 9, 2024. After. The pale blue of after rain at 5:00. The silence of a shuttered day. Turn the kettle on. Let it lightly sing. Dance into the blue lit kitchen.

  3. I lose at least a day when I come back to writing, sometimes several.

    But, because I document EVEYTHING – every little though I have, every idea for a blog post, anything floating in my mind for ANY reason – I can usually find something to bring it all back fairly soon.

    I use Scrivener, and a quick keyboard shortcut that adds a time-and-date stamp with one motion, and work mostly on the page/screen, so when stuff gets a bit messy in my head (too frequently) I write it down – and do a quick save if it’s been more than a few paragraphs. A whole backup if it’s been more than twenty minutes or so or I’ve just written something I can’t bear to figure out again.

    My in-brain storage is faulty and unreliable and slow – but I can almost always quickly find anything I wrote down – and this little quirk saves me. Days often go by with me not being able to get to the keyboard with some peaceful time, but so far I always manage to get back to where brain and I were.

    Those date stamps can collect for me the many files in which I made notations in a time period, and a quick read reloads the brain. I call it my EXTERNAL storage.

    After a while it is so automatic that I don’t even notice I’m doing it, and don’t skip it.


    1. Sounds like you take full advantage of the power of tech to store your ideas. I do all my writing on the computer, but have nothing like your system for capturing thoughts before they fly away.

  4. Perhaps……but my brain is commenting and I am running to my mantra “ TRUST the PROCESS “. After the emptiness your beautiful brain will start picking at the happenings, experiences and flashes of emotion. Trust the process, you’ve got it……love Dona

  5. There was no evidence in this column that the muscle was flaccid. Everything was there that makes your writing so entertaining and even heart-felt.

  6. “sweat stains don’t show on the screen”–Don’t lose that metaphor! It’s a keeper. On the other hand, the dirt of reality may be a good. Wallace Stevens says somewhere that poetry doesn’t “clean” life; rather, it makes life “dirtier.” (Or was it someone else who wrote that?))

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