On Silence and Simplicity & Their Opposites (Or, Why I Have Decided to Keep Writing Despite the Prospect of a “Real” Job and a Paycheck)

My blog has been silent for several weeks now, and perhaps some of you have wondered why. (Perhaps you haven’t, in which case this post might not suit your fancy. I promise more substance in future posts).

There are straightforward reasons for my silence, such as the kids’ week-long school vacation, preceded by a week of early school dismissals for parent-teacher conferences, and a nasty virus that kept one child home from school just prior to the vacation and two of us under the weather during vacation. I am not a writer who can produce decent prose by attending to my laptop while also reminding children of the outer limits of their biking territory, making sandwiches, planning sleepovers and pool outings, and distracting a nippy puppy from the tantalizing prospect of so many small sock-clad feet bouncing around the house and yard. I need solid hours of relative quiet to write anything more creative than a grocery list. Plus, that nasty virus? I’ll spare you the details, but it occurred to me at a particularly dismal moment that now I truly understand what it means to be “violently” ill.

But there was more to my silence than just a lack of writing time. As we all know, last week was a tough one—the bombings in Boston, a Senate vote that left those of us who support stronger gun laws with dashed hopes. After the Sandy Hook massacre in December, LaVonne Neff pleaded for silence in the immediate aftermath of such devastation. In contrast, I wrote many words in response to Sandy Hook. Many of them felt necessary and inevitable, particularly this meditation on grace, which I have thought of often while contemplating the baffling, unforgiving calculus of Boston, of who lost life and limbs and loved ones and who did not. While I don’t regret what I wrote in Sandy Hook’s aftermath, I felt compelled last week to take LaVonne’s wisdom to heart and keep silent, rather than searching for the right words (if there is such a thing) in a home environment not at all conducive to thoughtful reflection.

It turns out that circumstances that make writing difficult, such as needy children and large-scale bad news, are well-suited for other tasks. Like spreading mulch on our gardens. I spent hours filling the wheelbarrow with evergreen mulch, letting its spicy aroma fill my lungs and coat my clothes, carting it over to one of our many garden beds, pouring it out, raking it smooth. The scrape of the shovel against the driveway, the strain in my shoulders and arms as I wheeled load after load, the gentle attention given to making sure that tender new leaves remained uncovered to receive the sun—I relaxed into this lovely rhythm. I examined each plant up close, making note of which were emerging robust and ready, which showed damage from a cold, snowy winter but promised new growth ahead, and which might not have made it (it has been a cold spring; perhaps there is still hope for some of the plants that have yet to make an above-ground appearance).

One reason I love gardening is that the results of one’s labor (and even one’s laziness, as some plants thrive in spite of neglect) are so often clear, reliable, and beautiful. My gardening last week was mindless but satisfying, strenuous but simple. It was, in other words, completely different from writing, which is hugely strenuous (mentally and emotionally, if not physically), far from simple, and often unsatisyfing, in the sense that desired results (a large readership, editorial interest, author popularity and recognition, remuneration) come slowly and sometimes not at all, while undesired outcomes (embarrassingly low readership and book sale stats, obnoxious or combative reader response, authorial obscurity, a distinct lack of remuneration) are frequent and obvious.

I wrote to a frustrated writing colleague a few weeks ago,

Writing for a living stinks, except when it is the best job in the world.

The stinky, frustrating part has been in the forefront lately for me, enough that I spent a few days seriously considering applying for a job with a local foundation that would make use of my writing and editorial skills, as well as my pre-kids experience with grantwriting and related work for nonprofits. While I know no job is free of frustrations, having an actual 9 to 5 job, with a defined job description and duties, sounds so straightforward, so unlike sitting down at the computer each day either having no idea what to write, or knowing what I want to say but discovering that every word I employ to express it falls far short. And a paycheck…oh, what novelty!

Then I remembered how my having a 9 to 5 job would complicate our family life. One of the reasons that writing is the best job in the world is that I have the flexibility to go to a yoga class or doctor’s appointment mid-morning, stay home with a sick child, pop into school when one of the kids is reading a poem at a school assembly, run out for a few groceries or errands, play a 15-minute game of fetch with the puppy, or stroll around the yard at lunchtime to see what new wonders are brewing in the garden.

Devotion to a writing career, of course, must be about more than a flexible schedule. The deeper rewards are many—connections with readers, those rare moments when just the right words tumble onto the screen almost effortlessly, those far more common moments when just the right words dribble onto the screen in fits and starts as I muddle and sweat for hours or days, the privilege of offering opinions and images to the world and having people find meaning in them (or alternatively, find something with which to argue, which I don’t mind if the arguing is done well and with respect).

So I have decided, again, after this latest dry period, that writing is still it for me, in spite of the hard parts and because of the good parts. Thanks for sticking with me.

A technical note: Patheos is in the process of switching all blogs to the Disqus commenting system, which I think will be a positive development for this blog and the others. Disqus allows for more direct conversation between bloggers and readers (and between readers and other readers). As the transition happens, some comments might temporarily disappear or take a while to post. If that happens to your comment, please be patient. Everything will settle down soon.


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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://www.logicandimagination.com Melody

    Thank you for this, the insights as well as your talent.

    I’m glad you’re sticking with it! Xoxo

  • Taffy Wilcox


    I have noticed and have missed your writing. Even when you write about “mindless, simple, strenuous gardening,” you paint such an accurate picture. May your ideas and enthusiasm emerge along with the bits of green peaking through your mulch.

  • DaveP

    > One reason I love gardening is that the results of one’s labor (and even one’s laziness, as some plants thrive in spite of neglect) are so often clear, reliable, and beautiful.

    And maybe painkilling!

    I was thinking about one of your previous columns (“An Untold Story About Prescription Painkillers (Mine)” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/2012/09/an-untold-story-about-prescription-painkillers-mine/ ) and wondered …

    Is it possible to grow your own painkillers? Specifically, it is possible to grow your own opium poppies and use them as painkillers without a lot of complicated processing?

    After a little bit of inter-search, it turns out the answer is yes. That’s what people have done throughout history, and still do in most of the undeveloped world.

    For example, you can buy the seeds for various kinds of beautiful opium poppies (Papaver Somniferum) at most places that sell flower seeds, or on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Poppy-Somniferum-Giganteum-One-Stop/dp/B0017L7FKY

    I’m not sure if making your own opium is illegal or not. In case it is illegal, do not follow these simple directions, otherwise you will end up with a free, easy-to-use, effective painkiller: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_do_you_make_opium

    There’s lots more info all over the web. My wife and I are not in any kind of pain, but we’re going to grow some poppies this summer just because they’re beautiful.

    Here’s a description from Afghanistan as told by Marcus Luttrell in “Lone Survivor”. He is a Navy Seal with multiple bullet wounds and bone breaks and other major injuries, who was saved by some Afghan villagers.

    “By that Saturday morning, July 2, I was still in a lot of pain; my shoulder, back, and leg were often killing me. Gulab knew this, and he sent an old man from the village to see me. He came with a plastic pouch containing tobacco opium, which looks like green bread dough. He gave me the pouch, and I put it in my lip, and waited.

    I’m here to tell you, that was a miracle. The pain slowly vanished, completely. It was the first time I’d ever done drugs, and I loved it! That opium restored me, set me free. I felt better than I had since we all fell down the mountain.”

    After he was found and flown out by the US military, his comment on expensive Western painkillers was:

    “The morphine was not as good as the opium I’d been given”.

  • http://www.painandspirituality.blogspot.com Carol D. Marsh

    Ellen — I recently read “Quiet — The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Keep Still” by Susan Cain. I have been reflecting on what it means to be a person who loves solitude and things of quiet and stillness (like gardening and paying close attention to each plant and each bud) while all around us is noise and input and information and reaction and advertisement. Surely writing, with its need for quiet and peace of situation and spirit and its deep reflection, is not only in and of itself a “real” job, but is of utmost importance in this unthinking world. Please do not get a “real” job; stick with the reality of writing.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    Ellen, thank you for writing about your writing. The intersection of family and vocation and faith is an interesting place, isn’t it?


    P.S. Speaking of interesting intersection, I take on Biblical Womanhood today at my blog.

  • Sandy

    Good to see your latest blog. Although I don’t always comment, I read and enjoy your take on so many topics. I identified with your escape to nature. I have been busy in our yard too. Good therapy!

  • http://prinsenhouse.blogspot.ca/ Jeannie

    So glad to hear you are going to stick with the writing! I look forward as always to what you’ll have to say. I agree with what Carol says above, too, about the importance of reflection and the fruits of that. (I’ve also recently read the book she refers to, Quiet.)