I had to struggle to be okay with this, to do what I call trusting the heat, to write what must be written in the way only I can write it. ... Don’t worry. Don’t apologize. Don’t cower behind the defeated security of there is no “room for someone like me.” There isn’t room for any one of us. It’s up to you to make a place for yourself in the world. So get to work. ... The thread that connects our work is that we did the work we had to do. Our writing rose out of necessity and desire and whatever it was that wouldn’t let us go.
The kind of advice that Dear Sugar offers in her new column at The Rumpus reminds me of the sort of self-narration that once maddened me. (And "reminds me" is the key phrase here: the column itself is a good one.) I've spent a lot of my life among writers and would-be writers, and the hushed, urgent lines of "We write because we have to" and "I don't have a choice" became hilarious in both their ubiquity and their preciousness. I didn't believe it. These people seemed to grasp onto the idea of being fated to write because it implied a level of literary competence that, perhaps, they didn't have yet. It seemed like an effort to distinguish themselves as artists that are superior to "mere" crafts-people and dabblers. "We write because we have to" has the tone of someone who is more enamoured with "being" a writer, rather than actually writing. "Having no choice" seemed like a denial of responsibility for what the writers were -- and were not -- putting on the page.
I still feel bemused when I hear writers articulate their work as a "necessity," but it doesn't bother me the way it once did. For me, things have changed.
Here is a story.
The first weekend of October my freshmen year at the University of Michigan, there was a camping trip for first and second-year students in the Residential College. My cohort of new friends and I signed up, we took a bus with about 60 others into the noisy-hush of the autumn woods, and I remember being surprised -- why was I surprised? -- to find that we'd be sleeping in cabins rather than tents. (Actually, I ended up sleeping out by the campfire.)
I was still starry-eyed with college, and the typical weekend you'd expect among this set of artsy geeks -- trust falls and night swimming, hiking and music-making, improv games and drawing -- continued the shaking of my soul. All around me were these passionate, talented people whose very being manifested a possibility for all the rich shapes my life could take. Mind you, I grew up in a small town among people who were a lot like me, and where a kid was deemed "artistic" if she wore a bandanna around her hair. I love where I come from, but this: this! Here was the world, unspooling before me. I spent a late night with three others on a field, prancing and playing through the brisk blackness, and I remember so clearly how our energy spilled over. We could learn guitar! We could learn Spanish! We could write stories! Our lives would only get better and better, a swim from one creative moment to the next. My god, this world! We sprinted across that dark field just because we could. I remember the sound of our heated breathing. I was ready for this.
On the other hand.
Being surrounded by people who composed music and spoke multiple languages, who danced and wove garments: the fever-dream of inspiration led me to waver in my own creative identity. Back where I come from, I established myself as a "writer" by the fourth grade. This was true both because I spent hours and hours joyfully writing stories, and also because the people around me validated this identity. But carried into this new glittering space, my little trophies of editing the school magazine and winning at the Arts & Science Expo felt awfully meager indeed. More to the point, my actual stories and essays suddenly looked fragile -- my vocabulary was stilted, my ideas thin. Other people's stories were much better than mine. This was not a subjective point. Even people who did not consider themselves writers wrote stories better than mine. I'm thinking now of Mark, who romanced me with "Blackbird" on his guitar, and who tilted and swayed at his keyboard before penciling in notes on blank musical scores. That spring semester, he and I and two other friends took the RC's Narration class together. After our Wednesday sessions, we'd circle in his room and read our stories aloud to each other. One afternoon, he read a first-person story about a man with muscular dystrophy who read poems by Emily Dickinson. He affected the voice of the narrator as he read. I found it to be a tender, disarming, interesting story, and it dismayed me: Mark's story seemed to be about something, while mine -- which had been consciously inflated with a lyrical rendering of a sunset -- felt horribly juvenile. More to the point, I felt ashamed that I had the weaker story when I was the one who was supposed to be the "writer," and Mark only did it as a sort of friendly hobby; his great love was music.
This was the height of when the "I have to write" bit annoyed me. I heard variations of it from other student writers. I heard it from visiting authors at bookshops and university events. I found it online and in interviews. What bullshit, I thought. I figured that they were playing the same game I was: I dramatized my writing to disguise the fact that I knew quite well that I didn't "need" to turn out pages of prose. Not at all. I could go for many weeks with empty pages in my journal and unopened Word files. And I wouldn't miss it either. I was quite content to fill my days and nights with book-reading and bike-riding and games of chess and painting things in this sketchbook I had, and to think not-at-all about writing. I wrote for The Michigan Daily, but reporting often overwhelmed me with its demands on my time, especially when I was covering the affirmative action trials, and I would sometimes "hide" from editors by avoiding my phone. I took writing classes and tutorials, but I regularly rearranged paragraphs haphazardly so I could pass off a story as a revision. There were simply other things I wanted to do.
I didn't have to write, and, often, I didn't. But I also didn't want others to stop thinking of me as a writer.
The first night that Mark stayed over in my bed, I woke up before he did. I had that curling kind of joy in my belly where you don't want to move away from this new sweet being, tight fit though it may be on a twin bed. I stayed still. I breathed. I recounted in my mind how this all came to be. Mark slept. I watched him dream. And as the sun rose higher, I finally grew restless and too-warm. I got up to get a notebook and I sat on the edge of my bed, at his feet, and I began writing. My pen moved hurredly across the page, with what might have appeared to be a feverish passion. I felt the November sun on my bare legs. On those pages, I was narrating how things had moved from his choir concert the night before to here, this late bright morning. I still have what I wrote that day, and I'm glad I do, but here's the thing: I was not writing because I "had" to. I was not writing for me. I wanted Mark to wake up and to see me writing. And, finally, he did.
Today, my hands and fingers ache from writing. I feel the throb with every letter I'm typing. I've written like all hell the past couple weeks: articles, pitches for articles, book proposals, long letters sent through email, interviews, line-editing my friend's book manuscript, commentary on my friend's manuscript, and three poems. (Poems!) I've also written here on Isak, though not as much as I'd like: I have reams of ideas for things I want to share with you, adding to the 3164 posts, long and short, that have piled up over the years. I've been meaning to get to a review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun for three months now ...
I write a lot these days. I struggle with what I feel like I am not writing enough of: particularly, fiction. I struggle with my aching fingers and trying to make money and the weird guilt that comes both from being at my computer all day and not being at my computer all day. I struggle with being publicly vulnerable, of carving out my own heart and putting it bloodily into your hands. I have to push myself outside intellectualism and into the spaces of emotional risk; to 'trust the heat.' It is uncomfortable to me. It is not a necessity that I go there. Literature doesn't need it. Journalism doesn't need it. I do not need it. Really: I don't. But I am doing it.
As changing as my writing is -- moving through different moods and textures, its spectrum of intimacy and analysis, its range between make-believe and reportage, its active presence in my life and its absence -- I have thought a lot about what a sturdy thing writing is for me, all the same. It is my hand to hold. It is my true friend. I am in love with writing, and I have been my whole goddamn life, even when I did not, do not, know what it is I have to say, or when I doubt its worth.
Writing is an act that is at once physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. At once! This, then, is my communion. This is the Eucharist on my tongue.
I don't write because I have to. I have a choice. Any artistry that comes out of my cloudy-sky soul comes because I choose it again and again and again.
Originally published August 19, 2011.