What Margaret Atwood Said (and what Cormac McCarthy helped me do)

by - March 20, 2017

"A word after a word after a word is power."

That's what Margaret Atwood said. There are many ways to interpret this statement—some petty and some profound—but what I know when I see that phrase is this: write it down and watch the magic that comes of it.

This is why there is such therapy in writing. Such cathartic cleansing. Sometimes, in releasing a thought through written word, you rid it of its power. Like when I type: I'm struggling. I can't write—I'm effectually proving myself wrong by the very act of declaring said struggle. Or when the power is proven, like when I typed (as a cry for help and encouragement): book me a week in an adorable cottage on a secluded, pretty lake—and less than twenty-four hours following that publication I had an offer of a cottage on a lake! True story, I swear—and you can bet I said YES YES YES!

What I'm trying to say is that allowing yourself to be heard is opening yourself to be a conduit for tremendous power—not in a witchy, hootchie-cootchie way—in a soul altering/affirming way.

We are our words. Our words are us.

In grade school there was this outbreak of playground chanting. You were to sit cross-legged, staring steadily into the eyes of a partner, holding hands, knees touching while reciting in unison I am you and you are me and we are each other in a creepy monotone that would have made Joss Whedon proud. Over and over—I am you and you are me—until a wave of The Powers Of The Universe rolled over you and shocked you apart, after which you'd lay back on the concrete and yell, "did you feel that??!?"

I never felt it, I just didn't want to be the one kid in school the universe decided not to embrace. "Yeah, I felt it! That was a BIG one!"

Ridiculous right? Silly kids who watched too much Tales from the Dark Side or thought the Beatles' lyrics to I Am The Walrus were something more profound than an LSD trip.

Still, with words we fought to force change. They have always been my weapon of choice. Which may be why it so pains me when they seem to elude me in those moments I feel I have a project worthy of their attention.

Following last weeks whine, my mother emailed to say she'd read that writer's block was like trying to push a ton of raw liver uphill by hand. Gross! Then she encouraged me to take a break. To accept the season and to enjoy my time off without the self-applied pressure to produce what wasn't coming naturally.

And I heeded her advice. Because you should always listen to your mother. And because that same post was featured on a different site and received a comment that signed off with the statement: don't expect to succeed. I was so ridiculously mad that I had to step back {because I desperately wanted to take the bait and engage but knew it would be a choice that would not well represent who I want to be}.

I had all of March Break off. I went into it with the romantic notion that I'd accomplish much and finally beat down the wall that's been hindering me. A fellow creative told me that when she's not feeling the writing vibes, she reads. I took that to heart.

Over the course of the week I read 2 books to completion and one to within a few pages. I let myself become fully absorbed in the story of Piper Kerman and her year in a woman's prison in her eye-opening memoir, Orange is the New Black (way better than the Netflix version!}. Within hours of finishing her story I was so captured by Cormac McCarthy's The Road that I could barely do anything else...including sleep. This book. It's gorgeous and devastating and it is everything I want to do when I set out to write something myself.

One of the early readers of The Church in the Wildwood told me my writing reminded him of Cormac McCarthy. And friends, if someone compares you to a Pulitzer Prize winner, you take notice! I had little experience with McCarthy. I'd read No Country For Old Men but I hadn't liked it. Of course, this was before I knew he was the old man version of me. I bought The Road because I was curious to see if I agreed.

I did not. I mean, the beauty of his words within a subject matter so tortured...I was flattered—oh yes!—but I also felt so so small. Because who in the world am I to think I could ever create something that another person held in their hands and thought, I wish I could write like this? Who am I to think I could succeed?


The only unsuccessful people are the ones who stop reaching.

What is success? Success is keeping your nose to the grindstone. It's not money or fame or any other empty pursuit, it's doing what you love and never stopping! 

Cormac McCarthy knocked a brick loose. I closed the final page, tears still on my cheek as I rushed to my computer and opened a project that's been sitting dormant, just waiting for me to find my way back to it. And I was in it. Really in it. For hours! And it wrapped itself around me and I couldn't stop and suddenly I was alive and it wasn't until I took a break to use the bathroom that I realized those tears had dried on my cheeks, crusty little trails that meant I'd rediscovered who I was through the heartbreak and searing victory of The Road.

And when I picked up my third March Break book, Yes Please by Amy Poehler, the opening forward was all about writing and how HARD it is. I laughed right out loud!

See? The universe does actually speak to me!

I couldn't sleep that night. How could anybody sleep if they're trying to lie down on a crumbling pile of broken bricks? It's uncomfortable in the most delicious way. You don't break down a wall to lay on it—you break it down to get to the other side. At 3:00 a.m. I was in my writing room, wearing a bathrobe, scribbling down all these ideas that wouldn't leave me alone.

Remember what I said last week?

I want to be eyeballs deep in something that makes me desperate—something that wakes me up at night...


So go forth. Put words to your dreams and then watch them happen. Maybe not quite how you pictured it. Maybe not how it happened for other people. Maybe not on a silver platter. Maybe on a timeline you didn't expect. Maybe so far into the future that you can't see the 'why'. The only thing that matters is the 'Why Not?' And yes, it will scare you; and yes, it will stretch you; and yes, you might want to quit and you might wonder why you ever wanted it in the first place.

But if you stick with it—if you accept the struggle as part of your journey—there's no way anything's going to stop you.

Because you are already successful. Because you earn every little victory. Because there is no joy in giving up.

Because a word after a word after a word is power.

*this post contains Amazon Associate links

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  1. I recently read about some self-help dude, one of those guru-types, who wrote a typical self-help guide, and do you know what his best advice in it was? Read novels, not self-help guides. Here, you capture the essence of how doing IS achieving! Plus, you got that cottage week AND the insomniac inspiration just by facing your challenges head on (or by asking the universe to provide), so you've proven that it never hurts to ask. I love reading you. Thank you for sharing.


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