This is my desk. Or at least, the calming corner of my desk (the rest of it tends to be mussed with a laptop, stack of books, strewn papers). Every work day of every week for the last four years at least, I’ve woken up early to sit here and write for an hour before I attended one of three jobs, changing over the years, but all involving writing in some way or another. For most of this time, I was working on a novel, occasionally short stories and essays as they came up.
But for the last nearly three weeks, I fell out of this routine. “Fell” isn’t really the right word, I deliberately decided to not write, is more like it. I woke up later, meditated for twenty-ish minutes, made coffee, drank it slowly, watched the news, occasionally turned on my laptop and played around with a short story I wrote this time last year and haven’t yet returned to in order to make the appropriate edits, but this I did without conviction. Some mornings I woke up feeling absolutely directionless, too foggy-headed to make a decision on how to spend the 45-60 minutes before I needed to get myself together and head out the door, and those mornings were almost inevitably spent scrolling through my phone while I ate oatmeal or toast, reading but not absorbing much of what I saw, growing outraged at mere headlines.
It felt right to take a break, but yet strange. We tend to define ourselves by our work, and if not our work, then at least by what we are working towards, who we aspire to be. (Case in point: I spent much of my very early twenties telling anyone who asked that I was “working on becoming a writer” and still, one month shy of 30, having gone to school, been published, with my long labored-on manuscript finally completed and in the hands of a caring agent, I occasionally feel the word “writer” getting stuck in my throat, hear it spoken like it came from someone else.) It’s not that I feel like this label is now false just because I’m taking time off, but it does feel odd to not be in the act of “working towards it” or (as I try to convince myself) “doing it.” What am I if I’m not doing this one thing that I’ve staked plenty of my own time (all of my twenties) and (several) dollars pursuing?
In my day job, I’m a grant writer. A “development professional.” But is this how I define myself? Of course, not. This is something that, at 29, I found that I’m not bad at, that I can live off of, at least for now. But without the writing, the focal point of my days has shifted. My mind has been commandeered by grants, funding streams, the insane but necessary worry that VAWA will be defunded by the current administration and my livelihood will go away. These are not things I tend to like the majority of my time to be spent on.
I know it’s silly, ridiculous even, but three weeks without writing has had me worried about all of these things, labels and definitions, the existential “What am I?” etc. I fear these are my own neuroses, out on the table and in full view.
Another existential battle: in the current world we find ourselves in, where the news is always bad, or at least doing a good job of hiding what we know to be good and decent acts happening somewhere else, what is it to be a writer? More specifically, what is it to write fiction, poetry, meandering essays like this one? I’ve become, like many, incredibly bogged down in what to do, how to do it, where to show up, where not to show up, how best to protest, what to avoid to ensure you don’t suck at protesting, how to be a better white person, where to donate, what link to share, which article to read, which petition to sign. Where is the space for creating stories in all this? What is the need? Is there a need, or are we (writers) merely hoping that there is still a need?
A young woman I spoke to recently confessed in the self-conscious way I’m beginning to feel is consistent with all writers (or at least writers who are also women) that she, too, spends at least part of the many hours of her weeks writing fiction. I felt this kinship strongly, pictured her holing up somewhere like we do, in the glow of a laptop screen, carving out some space to exist solitarily. I was with this woman for several hours over the course of a Saturday, some of which was spent talking about writing and great American writers, but much more discussing politics and our horror at the changing world. (She, a Brit, moved to America just after Brexit, the proverbial “double whammy.”) I asked her, during the course of this long day of occasionally interrupted conversation, if she still felt fiction to be a worthwhile pursuit, given the political climate. She looked at me squarely. “Of course,” she said, in that lovely full-throated London tone I experience almost painful nostalgia for. “It’s needed now more than ever.”
I nodded my head and agreed, and I suppose some part of me does agree, or at least very much wants to, but it still didn’t keep me from feeling strange, almost selfishly ignorant, when I sent an email to the aforementioned lovely agent only a few days after the presidential inauguration with the subject line “Literary Fiction Novel” to say, “I’m pleased to resubmit to you…”
Where am I going with this? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. I woke up feeling emotional. I’m a Pisces, it’s nearly our season. I’ll probably go back to writing next week and wonder why I spent so much time ruminating on this. (A yoga teacher, when teaching her students how to meditate, told us the horrifying fact that only 3% of the mind’s thoughts are new. Another thing to worry about: Are all of my thoughts recycled? Slight revisions of previous thoughts?)
And yet, I can’t move past the feeling of being pulled in two. The energy needed to write is equal to (or greater than?) the energy needed to pay attention and act, to get through the day. And yet my days without writing have felt incomplete. I’ve been lingering in the space just before falling asleep at night with the nagging feeling that I left the oven on, or that I’ve forgotten to do something I said I would. As though the deliberate act of not writing has left something unfinished, something vitally important to my sense of self.
I, like many others, spend time daydreaming about the future. (Going directly against the advice of another yoga teacher, “Do not predict the future, do not dwell on the past.”) Selfishly, of course, these predictions are centered around me. The future version of me is always a rosier version of my current self. Contented, balanced, self-aware. She spends more time doing than she does worrying. She has accomplishments, goals, a different living space, an affable, bewildered baby strapped to her chest. This future version of me wears her hair long and wears (casually!) floor-length, flowy dresses. (Why? I tell you this now: my hair refuses to grow more than an inch below my shoulders and I do not, nor have I ever, owned a long, flowy dress.) And yet, this woman exists in my mind clear as day. Who is she? Why does she exist? Is she here to taunt me?
There are different versions of her: a writer (who is somehow not scraping by), a mother (who is somehow not overwhelmed or exhausted), a vegan café owner (a side project that always exists in my head that I lack both the will and skill to actually do), still in nonprofit development (please, no). Overlaying these visions of a future there is the reality of crisis: where will we be in four years? Eight years? Twelve? (“My biggest worry,” says a colleague, “is that we’ll never have a Democrat in office again. That there will be a Republican coup.” To which I could do nothing but shake my head and explain that my mind can’t quite bend to the possibility of that reality.)
The truth is, in this intrepid future, I will probably still be me, just a slightly older version of me, hopefully wiser, but maybe not, still with the same worries, the same fears, the same circular, meandering thoughts.
And the same burning need to write about it.