The (Not So) Writing Life
A year of not writing and starting to write again
[alt text: up close view of type writer]
I quit my job as an editor of two newsletters, magazines really, at the end of January. I probably should have quit sooner, but I lingered—stuck between what I knew I should do and what I wasn’t sure I could do. I wanted to quit, but I didn’t. Until I did. It was both a sudden bout of clarity that I had outgrown the job and a slow painful awareness that I was too burnt out to care enough to do it any more.
It was time to move on. I had no idea what I was moving onto.
I vaguely imagined that quitting my editor gig would give me time to write and write and write. I would finally finish a book that I have had under contract for a few years (or is it five?) about endings and apocalypses. It would turn my columns on pandemic motherhood into a proper book, which would require extra work and extra words, so many extra words. I would maybe finally write a young adult novel that is a gender swap of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Lost Boys (1987).
Quitting was supposed to give me time to write. I would be a full-time writer. I would write until my heart was content. I would write. Full stop.
I wrote my last column in January. I was at an ending that was also a beginning. I was taking a leap without knowing where I would land. I was vaguely optimistic about what might come next or, at least, I pretended to be.
I didn’t leap, however, I stumbled off a cliff.
I could bore you with the details of how 2022 went wrong for me. Let’s just say it went wrong.
But just know, the wrongness started before 2022. My dad died in September of 2021. And I was lost. I felt like I was losing my mind, and I wondered what the fuck I was doing with my life. It was a moment of rupture. A before and then an after. And I struggled to live in the after. Unsurprisingly, I struggled to write in the after as I mourned and helped my kids mourn the loss of their Pops as well.
I was rage made flesh. I was angry about everything and at everyone. I was angry at writing because I had to do it—when all I wanted to do was scream and pull my hair and snarl. The world moved on, and I remained frozen in my grief. I wrote because I had to. I resented its intrusion on my pain and suffering. I started to hate it. I started to wonder if I wanted to write at all anyway.
By January, I convinced myself that those angry feelings about writing must have been angry feelings about my job.
Weeks went by.
Months went by.
I didn’t write.
I scribbled fragments here and there on random pages of paper.
I sent myself disjointed emails with essay ideas that make little sense upon reading them now.
I didn’t write, I didn’t write, I didn’t write.
I didn’t want to write. I still resented it. I was still angry with it.
Not writing became a habit.
It became my life.
I wasn’t sure if that was the life I wanted it, but it was the life I had.
At first, right after I quit my job, I justified not writing. I had no bandwidth for it. No energy. And no desire to do so. I needed a break, I told myself over and over, so I was taking one. And I did need a break. That was real. But, I was still resentful and angry at writing. I still couldn’t convince myself to write.
But, I was—I am—a writer. So, folks inevitability asked what I was working on—what my latest book project was. I always dreaded answering. I wanted to shout, “Nothing! I am working on nothing!” I didn't shout. They didn't deserve the stew of my anger, fear, and anxiety that I have been steeping in each day that I didn’t write.
Instead, I would talk about the book projects that I had plans for. I would laugh and joke. I would put on a good front while feeling the creeping panic that I might not be able to write these books at all. They felt like dreams that I only hoped would come true. They felt like nightmares that I couldn’t escape.
I was not writing, and I hated it.
I wasn’t sure how to start again. I wasn’t always sure that I wanted to.
And then, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t write as much as I couldn’t.
I couldn’t find words.
For months and months, my brain had been foggy from a combination of grief, pain, surgery, injuries, and more recently, migraines. (Again, 2022 was not my year.)
My ability to use words was one of the first causalities of my brain fog. I would find myself in a middle of a conversation and simply unable to recall a word. It was like a blank space in my mind where the word used to live. I might be able to describe the word in some detail, but the word—the damn word—would elude me. It was gone.
Blank spaces littered my mind where the words used to reside.
This happened again and again, day after day, multiple times a day. One day, I looked outside and noted all the scattered leaves on the…um…yard floor. Eventually, I remembered it was called “grass.” Once I flailed for minutes and minutes, trying to remember what a sand clock really was. What I meant was “hourglass.” My partner reminded me.
Those are the memorable examples. They don’t even include all those ordinary words that we use to communicate in all conversations that punctuate our days. I couldn’t remember these words either. I would be in the middle or beginning or end of a conversation, and I would lose a word. I could feel the shape of them on the tip of my tongue, but I could never find a way to speak them aloud. Blank spaces littered my mind where the words used to reside.
I struggled to figure out what I was trying to say again and again and again—constantly playing a word game with my family as they tried to figure out what I was actually trying to say. They threw out guesses. I would shake my head. They would throw out more until we finally found the word that I was missing. Sometimes, the word just couldn’t be found.
How could I possibly write when I couldn’t even remember words? And when my mind felt more blank than full? Words had deserted me, and I needed words to write.
At first, I didn’t write because I couldn’t find the energy or motivation to or because I was still angry at writing, but then, I literally couldn’t. The words wouldn’t come. I feared they wouldn’t come back again.
I couldn’t write, and I was terrified that I would never write again.
Not writing was one thing. Not being able to write was entirely another.
I didn’t write. I hoped I might be able to again.
Recently, I was telling my therapist that I was on the precipice of an existential crisis. Again. Or maybe I was already in the crisis. (Spoiler alert: I was in it.)
Here’s the crisis: I was a writer who didn’t write anymore. I had realized that I hadn’t written in almost a year, and I was low-key freaking out about it. (Okay, so not low-key.)
And if I wasn’t writing, I felt increasingly uneasy calling myself a writer.
Rather than face my anxiety and fear head on as the months had passed by, I had let it fester. I had determined that I was a has been, a washed out writer, who—maybe if I was lucky—could rest on my laurels. I had published books after all. I had won awards. That was a enough of a career, right? So, I could be done with writing? Or writing could be done with me? I wasn’t sure which it was sure, but I was sure about the doneness.
I knew that I wasn’t writing. And if I wasn’t writing, I felt increasingly uneasy calling myself a writer. I was not writing, my brain so helpfully supplied, so I was not a writer, right? I wasn’t sure, but I was Troubled and Concerned.
And if I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t a writer, who the hell was I?
So much of my identity was wrapped up in being a writer. I used to tell people that I think in essays. If I am not writing, if I am not thinking in essays, then I am not me. And if I am not me anymore, then who is this person I have become? I am not sure that I want to know.
Thus, the crisis. And all of the sobbing that came along with it.
My therapist, after patiently listening to me explain how I couldn’t be a writer anymore, reminded me that I was still a writer whether I was writing or not. That I had had a hard year, so of course, I hadn’t been writing. That writing would be waiting for me when I was ready to write again. That being a writer was an essential part of my identity that I had been missing, but missing didn’t mean it was gone.
Writing would be waiting for me when I was ready to write again.
Missing didn’t mean it was gone. It just meant that I missed writing, and that I could find it again. Not writing didn’t mean that I wasn’t a writer. It just meant that I needed that break like I said I did, and I should have believed it rather than freaking the hell out. (But I have a particular talent for freaking out, so yeah.)
I’ll always be a writer—whether I am writing or not—because writing is fundamental to who I am. I just needed to be reminded of that. I just needed to find my way back to writing on my own terms in my own time. It took almost a year. But, dear reader, I think I’ve found my way back, and I’m glad to be on this journey with you.
You aren't just a writer, you are a DAMN GOOD writer. Glad you are finding your way back and I am putting in a strongly worded letter to the universe to give you a better 2023.