The Well-Spring

I have an arrangement with myself, which is that I can only have a Starbucks hot chocolate (two-percent milk, no whipped cream) on cloudy days, or on Sundays when I catch the early service at a different church, or on Mondays when the thought of going to work presses me down onto my bed like a weight. Sometimes I release myself from that regimen, like when I’m traveling, or fasting, or today, because I knew words were ready to spill out, and that they are the kind of words that will be aided by warmth and comfort and the breaking of a rule.

I read something recently about what various authors need while writing: a certain kind of coffee, perhaps, or a special pen or type of paper. I only need the quiet, and time to let the thoughts whip about in my head, sorting themselves into lines or dancing in circles or, sometimes, slipping two-by-two into quiet recesses and folds of the brain to mate, and to give me the new notion, a seed out of which a story or essay or poem can be grown.

Sometimes I want something more than the quiet, like today, when I rose in the darkness and knew I would go to get a steaming cup of hot chocolate, feeling very much like Edmund in the witch’s sleigh, or perhaps Lucy in the faun’s home — because you can never be sure when you write, not really, to what you are in thrall until you have put down the words and examined them, and then taken out your whittling knife, or sometimes your mallet and chisel, and gone to work excising the false so that the true may whisper or shout.

Today it was hot chocolate, but other times it is icy water, and sometimes tepid water, accompanied by a hunger in my belly. Sometimes I need to write fresh from the touch of someone I love, and other times I need not to be touched or spoken to, but to dwell in isolation for a few hours, which is why the dark mornings are always best, because you can indulge this illness without hurting someone close to you.

I read about a writer once — I think it is Henry James — who would write a consistent amount every day. I try to do this, if only because it is like plumbing a well, and you have to keep digging into the heart of things. I write every day, but there are some days when you know the words will be fruitless, that they will be rock and broken earth, and not a drop of cool sweet water. Other days you know before you scratch the soil of your mind or heart or flesh, whatever it is that you claw to get the words, that there will be a spring, and that you will touch it with your hands for an amount of time you can’t control, perhaps an hour or the entire day or even a week, and that you’d best capture every word while that spring is within reach. So sometimes I go through the ordinary motions dazed, melancholy or joyous or simply hopeful, because my hands are in that spring, and the words pour out so easily then.

These are things I don’t understand. I used to think that I should only write about what I comprehend. The most important things, I think, I will never understand. So I’m learning to write about mysteries, like a spring beneath the flesh, and love without measure, and the vicissitudes of words.


  1. Jim Ratajski


    Your approach to writing is a wonderful principle for many areas of life. My habit of late is to get up before my children and spend time in the Word and prayer. Many days are full of the spring of which you speak. Today, although I knew the spring was there to enjoy, I sensed something different once I started digging. “Wake up your daughter and play barbies”. So I did. My day (and her’s) have been full of blessing ever since.


  2. Rob

    I think it was Mark Twain who said, “Writers are people for whom writing is more difficult than it is for everyone else.”

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