When I am not writing, I am not myself.
Writing was the first outlet I found that could weather every mood, every state of inebriation and sobriety, every one of life’s obstacles, times of trouble and times of ease, every moment of anxiety and depression, every period of joy and strife. I’ve yet to encounter a situation in life that has not been more easily managed by the act of writing.
Yet, at some point in the past decade, I’ve found a million and one reasons to not write.
Maybe these non-writing cycles have something to do with the reality of writing as a career – the extreme rarity of earning a full living from solely writing what one wants to write – combined with the fears and sensitivities and absence of confidence that plague so many writers. This is not to mention what so many writers actually have to write and do to make any kind of living at all, the ways in which we must sell ourselves and our craft and our passion on every platform or job interview or meeting to have a realistic chance at a comfortable apartment, food on the table, the odd vacation.
We take this central part of ourselves and package it into an abhorrent pseudo-product, reduce it to little more than a working knowledge of language and style guides, catchphrases and catchy titles, buzzwords and Web crawlers. We are effectively forced to detach our souls from our writing and our writing from our souls.
Like any other worker in every other industry, we are expected to prove not just our skill and work ethic, but our willingness to conform to a corporate mission and devote ourselves to the brand above all else. At least from my perspective, none of these activities are conducive to a healthy, functional, and thriving writer’s mind.
I was lucky enough to land a great job without excessive effort outside the words that I write, but it took about 10 years and an inarguably charmed and privileged career trajectory to do so.
Throughout those 10 years, I at once felt as though my purpose in life was to write, and that I would never amount to anything as a writer. I still feel this way from time to time.
I idolized Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, seeing my fate completely written within the lines of that one short story, for better or worse. Romanticizing the unshakeable will to do some specific thing or be some specific way without ever having an internal need to explain or validate it externally, regardless of that thing’s monotony or lack of substance.
Only now am I beginning to recognize just how accurate so many clichés about writing have turned out to be. The truth is that if you’re a writer, if you’re really a writer, you can’t live proper without writing in one form or another, publicly or privately, fiction or otherwise. That your synapses begin to fail when you’re not putting pen to paper or fingertips to keys.
When I do not write, my greatest fears become graver, my ability to enjoy the beauty of life hindered. I fail to experience every moment in its miraculous singularity – to feel the emotions that ought to be felt when interacting with cosmic stimuli disguised as everyday minutia. I struggle to handle heartbreaking losses, life’s saddest and most absurd challenges, and to feel the emotions that ought to be felt in these scenarios as well.
A muted life, reality obscured by ever-darkening veils of self-deprecation, isolation, narrow-mindedness. Eyes shut and heart locked.
Physical conditions sprout up as well – I become tongue-tied, quiet, uncomfortable in the most familiar situations and completely unmoved by the most novel. I anxiously move from one thought or space to the next with no direction or conviction, existential terror fueling vacant footsteps, mental wanderings, and unwarranted feelings of peril.
I fail to see forests and trees alike. I become another drone among billions of drones who are likewise defying not just their life’s calling, but the very art to which their soul is drawn and from which their soul derives purpose and the will to live. As a note, “art” here can be any kind of action, writing is one of infinite others, from botany to community service to trademarked video games to political theory to painting to splitting atoms.
I am one of the lucky ones who do not require more than a pad and pen, or a quiet and remote pasture, to fulfill my calling. I’m not a pilot or deep-sea diver, I’m not a physicist or mechanic, I require so little to oblige my soul’s sole demand, and yet I fall into this non-writing cycle somewhat frequently. I’d imagine a great many people do regardless of what their art might be.
When Rainer Maria Rilke told Mr. Kappus to ask himself whether he would choose to continue living if he was forbidden from writing, I reckon this is what he’s getting at. Not if he would literally die upon being told he could no longer write, but if he would possess the capacity to live in any meaningful sense of the word without writing. This is where at least one of those clichés about writing comes into full focus – that at some point we must acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that recognition and compensation for our own writing is a carrot on a very long and complicated stick, but that we must continue writing all the same.
When I am writing, I can feel the feelings that I am meant to feel without consciously or unconsciously smothering them or shutting down entirely. When the angels and demons of my imagination are free to run wild on the page, they spend far less time tinkering with my day-to-day reality and obscuring the ways in which I perceive and respond to the world around me.
The world opens itself to me and I to it, every waking moment lit by the animate and inanimate creations of the cosmos, comfortably blanketed by gravity and other natural forces, awakened to the unstoppable movement of celestial existence.
I can feel for and understand the people furthest from my own community, not forced to empathize but rather granted the simple recognition that they too are human beings also going through life’s pains and pleasures, dreams and realities. I can appreciate, in real-time, the preciousness of life to the point of safely shepherding a spider outside rather than flushing or crushing it.
Feel comfort in my own skin and the shoes of others. Understand more, speak with some fluidity and listen more attentively. Attempt to truly hear and see other people rather than just passively hearing and seeing my preconceived notions of them. Tap into the energy of all that is, all that ever was, without the slightest effort or modicum of attention paid.
All just is, I just am.
Why I do not write becomes a more complicated and harder to reconcile question with the passing of each year. Now when I start to write after a stretch of not writing, though, I pay less mind to the weeks or months in which I did not write. I quickly re-enter that ideal presence and mindful headspace once again. I regain the conscious ability to see the forest for the trees and the trees for the freak miracle that put atoms in motion that would ultimately combine to soak water from dirt and energy from a star to produce the oxygen we breathe.
Coming out of those unproductive periods is never easy and maybe the first step out has become steeper with time. The internal arguments that prevent me from writing become more firmly rooted in more compelling realities – greater responsibility, less time, etc. – but lack a true foothold in reality. The challenges of life are very real, but some strange mechanism warps them into half-baked validations of why I’m not writing. Obstacles and setbacks and trauma and loss and success and euphoria are all brief in and of themselves, wielding them as a reason or narrative to defy one’s obligation to one’s craft is often eternal and terminal.
Even with this knowledge, I’ll no doubt fall back into a phase of non-writing eventually. Life is frenetic and unpredictable, but that is a constant for me and every other person on the planet. We fall into these holes for one reason or another, and struggle to claw our ways back to the surface with varying levels of difficulty according to what put us there in the first place.
For now, though, I will simply acknowledge that it feels good to be writing again.