I haven’t exactly had writer’s block for the past month, but I haven’t been writing. This is a red flag.
Until a month ago, I maintained a strict writing discipline: I’d wake at 4:30, eat my breakfast and read for an hour, and then sit down at my computer to begin. My goal: write for an hour, at least, before I had to drive to school to teach. For two years, I followed that discipline. Before that, for many years, I wrote every night after I put Mitike to bed; I refused to let myself go to sleep until I had reached at least 1,700 words.
But lately, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a place I know all writers visit at some point, or at many points (because I have read so many memoirs by writers, like Stephen King’s On Writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). It’s a place that looks like despair, except it also looks like regular life without the requirement to get up at 4:30 a.m. or drink strong coffee at 10 p.m. to reach those 1,700 words. In fact, it’s a more relaxing place. The in-progress novel about the girl whose brother is shot by the police? I no longer have to figure out how to make her reaction both powerful and believable. The other in-progress novel about the high school classroom on lockdown? I don’t have to solve the mystery of why, exactly, they’ve been put on lockdown. The historical fiction about Anna Dickinson? I don’t have to research anymore. The nonfiction work on coffee? I don’t have to walk through my life connecting everything to coffee any longer.
It’s easier to not write. Regular, non-writer people have calmer, far less obsessive lives. I never knew.
I’ve fallen into this place because I’ve been rejected on almost every possible front lately: a PhD program put me coldly on their waiting list; five colleges failed to call me for an interview for their posted composition or creative writing positions; four magazines informed me I have “high-quality work,” but they do not plan to publish the essays I submitted to them; and three writing residencies thanked me for my applications for their summer programs but informed me I am not quite for them. And the two books in the world with my name on them as author make only a few dollars (literally) each month. Only one book waits in the wings: the book of essays on grief, which wonderful Brain Mill Press plans to publish soon.
So, pitying myself, I decided to stop waking up at 4:30. Or, rather, I still get up at 4:30, and then I lie down on the couch and sleep for an additional hour. On the weekends, I choose to read instead of carve out my writing time, as I used to insist to my family I required. I spend my hours outside in our backyard, building a square-foot garden. The kale plants appreciate the water; the cabbage never asks me to turn a beautiful sentence; the eager broccoli never tells me my work is “not for them.”
Then, this week, in one of those moments that make my entire teaching career matter, a student came to my classroom to ask for help on a scholarship essay. The student’s name is Nasra Yusuf, or at least that is what I’ll call her here, to protect her identity. Nasra Yusuf has faced nearly every imaginable challenge this year: a Somalian immigrant from a traditional Muslim family, she chose to come out to her family as lesbian this fall and was promptly disowned. Technically homeless now, she lives with a friend’s family and is scrambling to apply for as many scholarships as possible, as her parents refuse to assist her with college unless she renounces her identity as a lesbian. She has endured depression and anxiety, crippling self-doubt, and the grief of standing separated from literally everything and everyone she has known. Secretly, she still prays to Allah for comfort, though she has chosen to take off the hijab, to wear 1980s T-shirts and jeans, to unbraid her long hair and wear it free.
In her scholarship essay, which only needed some editing, Nasra Yusuf describes the way her father called in the Muslim sheikhs to surround her in a prayer intervention when she first came out to her parents, the way she kept herself separate and distant inside even as they chanted, certain in her new awareness of who she is. It is a beautiful and powerful essay—the kind of writing we read because it matters and it’s honest and it reminds us to be honest in our own lives, too.
“You’re brave,” I told her, as I often do.
She grinned at me, pushing up her glasses. “Writing about it helps. It really does.” Then she thanked me, gathered her laptop and books, and rushed out to a meeting with another scholarship organization. I sat alone in the sunshine that streamed through the tall classroom windows. Writing about it helps. It does. Of course, I am the one who has taught Nasra Yusuf that this year. Again and again, I have encouraged her to write about her experiences, to discover how she feels by writing herself onto the page. Again and again, I have told her that I have survived the most difficult parts of my life because I have refused to stop writing.
In those times, I didn’t care whether anyone wanted to publish or pay me for my writing. I wrote because I had to. I wrote because I knew that was how I would survive.
And now I’m going to quit because of a handful of rejections?
Last week, I heard the writer Anne Lamott speak about and read from her new book, Hallelujah Anyway. Lamott, who wrote the sage advice in Bird by Bird that a writer should and must create “shitty first drafts” and keep plodding forward, though writing is often tedious and unrewarding misery, reminded us that it’s about the work. She said she remembers that her own father, also a writer, required himself to sit down at his desk every morning by 5:30, no matter what. So you don’t feel successful. So you despair. So you feel like you have nothing left to say. So what? It is the work that matters. In Bird by Bird, Lamott explains, “…this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”
I never used to write because I wanted recognition or fame or money. From age nine, I have written because I felt compelledto write. I wanted to feel more alive. And Nasra Yusuf is right: it helps. It does.
Starting right now, I am returning to my green chair in my orange writing room in our house. I am returning to my 5:30 a.m. writing routine. I have reopened the in-progress novels, the half-written essays. I have returned to my old requirement for myself: write, every day, no matter what.
Writing, of course, is not much different from the spinach and onion and collard green seeds I’ve planted in my square-foot garden. The work is what matters. Something might grow, and it might even be good — but for now, I’ll keep watering, I’ll keep scaring away the rabbits, and I’ll wait.