When You Brood More Than You Write
I don’t write; I stew.
Over my story ideas.
Over my old manuscripts.
Over my audience.
You could say that I brood over my brooding. Brood, brood, brood. If I say it enough, the word itself begins to sound weird. If I brood enough, I begin to wonder why I am thinking about writing at all.
Brooding is uncomfortable. Embarrassing. It’s difficult to see the point, and while I wonder what the point could be, I brood some more. What should I do with my book? Should it be fiction or nonfiction? Should I scrap the manuscript and start over?
More than anything, I wrestle with what it means to write in a way that honors the people among whom I grew up, in sub-Saharan West Africa. I vividly remember my farewell feast in northern Benin. Nineteen years old, I was leaving West Africa to pursue a university writing degree in the USA. The community outdid itself on the food. All my favorite dishes. And there were speeches, of course. I made a speech, too. In my best Baatonu, I said I would not forget. I said they were my people. Always would be my people.
And though few among them could conceive of a book of fiction, or a memoir, I silently promised I would use my writing to honor them.
I didn’t know what that might look like. I just knew that I owed too much of who I am to these people to write in a way that did not acknowledge that debt.
That was before I discovered, on entering college writing classes, how easy it would be to exploit the “otherness” of my life.
I had an advantage: anything I wrote had an exotic factor. I didn’t have to work as hard as others on using precise, unexpected details. Very few of my readers would know if I were being imprecise. And everything I said was unexpected.
This realization scared me. I was going to have to push myself. And guard against a huge temptation to “mine” my life. If I wasn’t careful, I would play my memories, like exotic cards, indiscriminately. This way of getting attention as a writer would not honor my people. It would not tell the truth about sub-Saharan Africa.
I wrote, because I had to—I was in college. But I was scared.
Twelve years have gone by. I write something now and then, but underneath is The Story, waiting. I look at it, and cringe, imagining that if I’ve lost patience with it, so has God and everybody around me.
Even the people back home in Benin, who know nothing about it. I feel sure they have given up on me. That I’m just another white person who claimed to care but who went away and forgot them in the dazzle of a better life.
By opening up to other writers, I’ve learned I am not alone in experiencing tormenting thoughts about what I do. If you’re a writer, you probably know what it’s like to obsess about your craft. What is wrong with me? I could have written several whole books by now, if I could just stop overthinking! Brooding is disconcerting, and we often find it shameful.
But it’s a word God knows.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1–2)
In The Message, these lines read “the Spirit of God was brooding.” The possible meanings for the Hebrew word include “brooding”—yes, like a bird.
It’s a similar idea, hovering. Only hovering… It’s such a pleasant, clean word. Brooding involves a lot of snot.
When I hear these first three sentences of the Scriptures, I often time-jump straight to Gabriel’s words to Mary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” I think about God hovering over emptiness in the womb of a person, as he hovered over the womb of a planet.
This kind of brooding—this hovering—seems so far removed from me.
But if we take Christian doctrine seriously, we have to admit that when God became a human being, he really did become like us. How is God with us in our creative nature—an aspect of our human nature he took on, with the rest of it?
I believe one reason God gave Mary a chance to say Yes or No by sending the less-intimidating Gabriel with advance notice is that he always wants someone to be with him in his stewing—with him voluntarily. When he broods over emptiness to bring forth something new, he wants someone along.
He gets it. Stewing.
He wanted friends in the garden of Gethsemane when he brooded over his crisis. He wanted friends unlike those Job had—friends who would sit with him in silence for more than seven ceremonial days. He asks us all the time to sit with him in silence over what tears his brains and heart out—the cruelty we show each other, the way we reduce each other to monsters to justify our actions, the way we fritter away each opportunity for a real conversation with him.
When many interested fans “turned back and no longer walked with him,” after his crazy eat-my-body-and-drink-my-blood speech, Jesus asked his disciples, “Do you want to go away as well?” and Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” I think Jesus turns those loyal, truth-perceiving words over in his mind even today.
Because when somebody sits with you in your moment of intense crisis—your moment of deepest doubt, or strangest certainty—you never forget.
We remember those who sit with us without saying anything, who sit with us when someone we love dies.
We remember those who brood with us over the puzzles of our lives. Those who sit across the coffeeshop table with us while we mumble for the thousandth time that we’re afraid we will be sick forever—or single, or childless, or in debt, or chemically depressed, or perpetually rejected by agents and publishers.
I dare to believe that when God became Immanuel—God with us—he came to sit with us—to sit with ME—in my creative stew. To do us the honor of the kind of attentive presence he also longs for from us. He does us the honor of a Yes when we ask him, “Is he in?” on our newest (or oldest!) creative project.
He does not fall asleep on us in our writer’s Gethsemanes, no matter how long we agonize over our questions. It’s staggering, but God is not upset that it’s taking me so long to figure this writing dilemma out. I’m the one who’s upset.
God is not one of Job’s friends. God knows how to be the silent friend when we are sitting out the pain of a question. God does not trivialize our stories by tying up the loose threads for us or giving us the ending. No “Here you go, a divine plot.” No “Here you go, an easy resolution.” No “Just write something that will sell.”
When we find ourselves brooding, stewing, overthinking our story ideas, it’s because there’s something buried in that mess—an honest question, I would bet—that is worth all of time, all of history. A question God gave us to brood over with him—to breath over, hover over, muscle over.
Possibly, all of this horrible brooding stuff is actually the best way I can fulfill my promise to honor the Baatombu people. Even if I never write anything about them, the very act of considering so carefully the question of how to tell their stories is a way to honor them. Who else is agonizing over the twilight of a small ethnic group about to be swept under the rug of time? (God is.) Who else is trying to tell their story? The effort and intention alone are an homage.
When we say the equivalent of “You have the words of eternal life,” he never forgets. And he does us the same honor: he sticks with us through the discouraging years of seeming artistic failure. He is with us.
Do you struggle with overthinking your work? What has encouraged you to persist with the project?
Tineke Bryson (Honors in Writing, Houghton College) lives in the very center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. Tineke grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, she worked as an editor.
She and her husband, Matthias, live in Lawrence, Kansas. She loves British history, reading YA fantasy, and collecting moths.
Wonderful, encouraging post! Thank you, Tineke. More than the comfort that brooding is okay for an author, I was reminded by your opening of the importance and potential impact of writing.
Thanks for reading, Leah! I think sometimes we assume that brooding is counter-productive, or procrastination in a clever disguise. But it does actually have a crucial role in the creative process!
Tineke – this is exactly what I needed to hear. All of it.
“When we find ourselves brooding, stewing, overthinking our story ideas, it’s because there’s something buried in that mess—an honest question, I would bet—that is worth all of time, all of history. A question God gave us to brood over with him—to breath over, hover over, muscle over.”
Love it. Well done and thank you.
Thanks, Uma. 🙂
Good thoughts. However… without the mother hen’s brooding, the chicks would never hatch… and the hen doesn’t brood for just a few moments. What’s happening during the brooding?
Thanks. Bette. Well said!