On Not Writing

I know my writing about writing is usually very upbeat, but some days I cannot write for reasons that are a complicated blend of fatigue and the usual difficulties (time, place, forgotten notes — that kind of thing), which dissolve into a single, strong sense that the whole enterprise is futile. On those days, and today is one such day, I think about how what matters are the people in my life, many of whom I become disconnected from when I’m writing something.  And so those are days when I don’t write, which is for the best. Because you probably don’t write well when you are exhausted by thoughts about how difficult it can be to get back into the story, and you know that many things are easier to do and that no one would really be upset if you stopped, and many people would, at some level, be relieved.

The way it works is that you are lucky if you find something you passionately love to do in your life, but you have no right to expect that this passion will be shared or nurtured or rewarded by anyone else. Now, no one in my life actively discourages my writing, and some people ( my husband being one ) are all about helping it along. Still, if it disappeared from our life, I don’t think anyone would experience any grief, which is only right, because the writing doesn’t belong to them. It happens to them, and it inconveniences them, and they deal with it because I love it and they love me. But it’s not theirs to lose. It’s mine and so the real loss would be to me.

Wondering how much of a loss it would be to stop doing something that is extraordinarily difficult sometimes, this morning, on my way in to work, I posed this question to my self: if you knew that you could have one of your heart’s desires, a heart’s desire that isn’t related to writing, would you agree to never write another word, so you could have that longed-for thing? It was hard to answer. I could not honestly say, as I often see people say, that I would die if I couldn’t write. Or I write because I HAVE TO.

Me? I sat there and imagined a heart’s desire, and laid it next to the way I feel when I write, and the stories I want to tell, and the uncertainty and difficulty of finding people to read what I write, and my fears about how good it is, and I wondered what life would be like if I just stopped in the middle of editing my novel, and never picked up the second one again and didn’t write any more stories, the ones about women who’re ridiculous, but so smart at the same time. I decided life would not be worth very much, although I’d have more time to spend with my family, and to sleep and hike, but it took me nearly an hour to come to that conclusion, and even then I wasn’t entirely sure I was right.

I say all this not because I need or want anyone’s reassurance – I have confidence enough for several writers and mostly I have good days, some even great, when I never think like this – but because on a day when I don’t have those things, I don’t write, and I think it’s important to note that writing well is not a simple thing, not in the least, and there are days when getting to the place where you can write what you want to write is not at all about finding the time, or the correct work space, or an agent, and that some days those things look remarkably easy compared to the difficulty of finding in yourself the necessary certainty that what you have to say matters at all, in comparison to how much it costs.

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21 thoughts on “On Not Writing

  1. Sometimes I loathe writing with a total passion and one day, I like to think, I’m going to give it up and focus on growing vegetables and cooking and learning a musical instrument and spending time with people and just generally doing things that are actually worthwhile. But then I have a good day…

  2. Thank you for sharing the pause, bloglily. Sometimes these pauses are the most beautiful experiences in life. And in writing. For you are writing even as you pause.

  3. Gosh, Lily, there you are, “not writing”, and you write the most amazing & honest post. Because it’s not easy. And as frustrating & useless it can sometimes feel, well, I’ve noticed that no one really values anything that comes easy.

  4. A lovely post, BL. The question about what one would do if one didn’t write (or read) is too relevant to be morbid, especially for us happily addicted compulsives! Whether it is after a long time or a short time, I always tend to go back, and the experience always feels better than before, if a little harder to access.

  5. Bloglily, I know exactly how you feel. At the moment it strikes me that I could never write a word again and it really wouldn’t matter. I won’t add anything to that because you’ve said it all brilliantly already, which is why I am sure and certain that you will go back to it when you are ready and we will all be the better for it at that point.

  6. Wow. I loved this, especially as I’ve had a week of not writing and in that time, started to ask dangerous questions about the relevance, validity and worth of my novel. What I need to do is get back there, fast, because I do believe what I have to say matters. Thank you for writing something that both explains where I have been and points where I am going. It was very comforting.

  7. What excellent “timing” you have for dishing up this question, BL! I’ve been wondering lately what on earth am I doing with this writing thing.

    I couldn’t possibly quip an answer here on whether I’d give up writing for a heart’s desire. But it deserves serious pondering simply because, as you also point out, writing takes time and takes time away from people and things…even though we are fortunate to have people around us who are supportive. So, yeah, I’m going to walk around this weekend giving it some thought.

  8. Hello oh, I hope you have a good, inspiring walk this weekend!

    Welcome Becky — it’s certainly the case that many of us need to spend time thinking over the cost of pursuing something that’s so chancy, and yet so expensive, in terms of time and energy away from other things that need attention too. And congrats on that cute new baby, by the way!

    Well Charlotte, I’m glad you’re going right back in there, before you let yourself spend too much time thinking about anything other than your story. Good for you and good luck with it all.

    Litlove, I wonder how long that feeling lasts? I’m sure it’s situational, because the original strong impulse to get things down on paper is in there somewhere, even when it’s buried under other things. I think that reading one’s way back into enthusiasm about writing might be a very effective thing to do at times like this.

    I think you’re right, Polaris. It’s not a morbid, poor me, talk me out of doing what I should be doing and in the process praise the heck out of me, kind of question. The cost of working at a solitary, unpaid, time-consuming pursuit is not small, and if you’re going to do that, it seems like the honorable and responsible thing is to make sure it really does matter, and that you really do have something to add to whatever conversation you’re participating in. Now, no one can really tell you the answer to those questions, an answer that’s more instinctive than anything else. Also, there are a lot of things in the way of getting an honest answer — one’s insecurities and fears can make it hard to assess whether what you’re doing is worth doing, and also one’s hopes that seem to be answered by writing, but in fact could be answered by something else with a much smaller cost are difficult to identify — to name two such things. Anyway, it’s an ongoing inquiry, isn’t it?

    Marie, Do you know that thing Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, about how difficulty is a guide to whether you should keep going? Or maybe what he says is as simple as hard things are generally worth doing? I do believe that, and not in a masochistic way — but I think when something is difficult, that’s like a flare being sent up in your brain that you should keep going, keep looking into the thing. For example, when I know I’m avoiding thinking about something, I force myself to look at it, because, as difficult as that thing is to look at, it’s always worth finding out what’s there.

    Jade, What an interesting thought! There is certainly value in taking a breath, and in pausing — it’s not something to panic about, and in fact there can be useful and good things that occur in that pause, as you say.

    You are so right, Ms. Make Tea. It’s the good day we all look for that makes growing vegetables look like they might not turn out to be a life’s passion after all. Which is not to say that choosing vegetable-growing as a life’s work isn’t a wonderful thing to do, or that you can’t fit that into your writing pauses… But I think y’re right to remember that the good days happen and matter in keeping a writer going.

  9. How interesting! I totally relate to your post. Now that all my time is devoted to the baby, I discover how much I need to write, even if I don’t find any energy right now to write even a little when the baby sleeps… I don’t know if what I write is important to anyone else but me, and I’m not sure it’s any good, but I know something’s missing when I don’t do it.

  10. I actually did officially give up writing totally a few years back. It was a relief for a while, not having that “I should be writing” feeling nagging at the back of my mind all the time. But then somehow I found myself writing again…

  11. Historically, I think there has been a lot of macho crap about being a writer that does not at all apply to people who want to have a balanced life, especially with children and especially with children and a job. It’s possible to balance. I’ve talked to hundreds of creative writers, painters and sculptors, again especially women, who balance it all. Unlike Hemingway, for example, we have more than one essential center to our lives, period. I’m sure he spent more time drinking than we did carpooling.

  12. bloglily–I watched Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” (have you seen it? omg, you have to see it) on youtube this week…and one of the things he said was, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

  13. Jade, thanks for that tip. I’ll check it out.

    Nova, That’s enough, don’t you think?

    W, R. I think there’s something so interesting and important in what you say. I’d love to hear more about those women who’re doing that balance — and I agree with you that it is entirely possible to do it, particularly in the time you might otherwise be spending drinking, having a hangover, and drying out. As you say, that’s pretty time consuming and the amount of life you see in the carpool that might make it into your stories and novels is huge compared to what you see in a bar when you’re totally smashed. So, that’s a long winded way of saying that I agree with you.

    Well, then, Yogamum, you must have things you want to say! I’m glad you’re finding a way to say them.

    Pauline — I think this is a very fruitful time to be writing — the new experience you’re having is very raw and very exciting and if you have the presence of mind to get some of it down on paper, you’ll be so glad you did when you have time to take a breath and read it all over. I’m glad you’re doing that.

  14. I am sitting here, not writing, and instead reading blogs and cleaning and trying to be here for my husband who takes the bar in two days, and feeling sort of resentful of absolutely EVERYTHING, because my LIFE is getting in the way of my WRITING and I don’t know what to do about it. I am one of those people…I do write because I Have to, in some form, every day, so it’s not really a choice, and I would be a bear if I didn’t, but being a writer seems to mean a certain amount of guilt no matter what. Not writing? Guilt. WRiting, but not calming down my husband? Guilt. And etc, etc, etc…

  15. What strikes me from your post is that, in reality, it’s as difficult to NOT write as it is TO write. For us writers, it’s probably more difficult to not write — which is why we keeping writing despite how crazy it all seems sometimes!

  16. BL–
    Ah, the doldrums. Let me say that when I read these passages from your post, I thought, huh. There are LOTS of us who would not feel relieved, and would indeed grieve. I know you have great gobs of confidence…I also know you are pulled in many directions at once.

    It seems part of the issue here is how wide a community you can claim and create. And how wide a community you can look to for support. If it’s only you and W, trying to meet all the needs of three active growing boys, it seems nigh on impossible to do anything else.(How many ganglions do they grow daily? and how on earth do you feed THAT appetite?)When you *do* take or figure out how W or school or camps or play dates or at-home projects can stand in and do the feeding, then you end up feeding me (and all the others who make up your wide wide net of readers.)

    My life and E’s life is better because I read you whenever you write. Your blog makes my life richer; I feel less alone, and often less crazy and often entertained and lighter, and often challenged to think some new thought.

    So in part, the question you are asking, is who do you support and how do you cover all your many bases.

    You’ve also created a living room that we get to visit. I don’t just read you, but all the comments that you get and respond to which extends my community, albeit one step removed into something akin to condoned eavesdropping.

    I’m forced these days to examine the huge difficulties America creates with our nuclear families and “do it alone” values. Nothing like being a single mother to raise THIS. If we were soley responsible for a little less, and jointly responsible for a little more, would it ease us?

  17. Thanks for these reflections BlogLily – I can certainly identify with your personal relationship with writing… and the many moods of the craft. 😉

  18. Dear Lily,
    I came across your blog while Googling the James Jones Fellowship. I too am a finalist in the contest this year. Apparently, we have a lot in common because I am also a lawyer. If you want to “talk” about the contest, feel free to send me an e-mail. If I don’t win this year, I hope you do.
    Best,
    Carmela

  19. Hello Carmela, That’s fabulous — many congratulations to you. I’ve sent you an e-mail and would love to hear more about your work. xo, L

    Hi Jade, Yes, I think many people who do any kind of writing recognize that sort of dark thing where you think what you’re doing isn’t very good and maybe it’s time to stop.

    Gail, What can I say? You’re a lovely friend, and I’m so glad I know you.

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