I remember talking to my friend Luke one day while we were driving around looking for a parking spot. He was venting about a girl who had broken his heart despite everything he had done for her and despite his putting her on a pedestal. He was in a lot of pain, but he was finally admitting that she had flaws. “She’s a writer who doesn’t write!” he shouted into the windshield.
More than a decade later, I don’t remember anything else about that conversation (except the anecdote about getting his redwings). “A writer who doesn’t write” developed a clear definition in my head. It was the most despicable of creatures, a vile hypocrite who pretends to be a gatekeeper and an artist, but is at best a hedonist and at worst an aimless suburbanite with pretensions to “living, not just surviving”.
But I managed to still be jealous of this girl who could call herself a writer. I wanted to be a writer and I’d always been encouraged in my writing, but at that time, I could have as easily called myself a Navy SEAL or an Olympic gold medalist. Writers write, and if I wasn’t writing, it was because I wasn’t a writer. I had myself convinced I would have to be a writer to even start writing. It was obviously impossible for me to become a writer.
I decided that the difference between me and a writer was a confidence or arrogance I only learned to feign a few years ago. It’s the belief that you have something to say that isn’t the regurgitation of facts required by an assignment or the exposition of trendy truisms required by society. I don’t know why some people have that confidence from a young age. Maybe we’re all born with the confidence to express ourselves, but it’s slowly squished out of us as we learn to be ashamed of disapproval from anyone and to crave affirmation from everyone. There’s no room for honesty or dialogue in that kind of environment, but we spend most of our lives maintaining it because that’s where we get our identities.
The thing is, I love to write. I’ve kept a journal since I could write in sentences. I still remember being about eight years old when my mom got me my first journal. I don’t seem to have it anymore, but I remember it being one of those puffy, girly diary books with a lock on the side. I knew that you were supposed to start your entries with “Dear Diary” and then tell your diary what you did that day. I was happy to report that my mom was cooking steak for dinner, and then dinner was ready and I signed off to go eat it.
After that, I just kept journalling. It took a couple of years before I was pretty sure that I didn’t need to start with “Dear Diary” or give my notebook a clever name or even feel like I was talking to a friend. I was just writing. Sometimes I wrote about what I did that day, sometimes I wrote about what I learned and what was making me reconsider my worldview. I wrote a lot about the boys and then the men in my life, and mostly I wrote pages and pages trying to figure out what they were thinking. I wrote even more trying to figure out what I was thinking.
I wrote stories now and then, but not many outside of my English classes. I thought about being a writer because I wrote well enough to get praise from my peers and professors. After a few years of research papers and a couple of articles for the NGO where I was an intern, I though a job where I could write news briefs and articles on political stuff would suit me since that was what other people told me I was good at. I hadn’t really tried anything else. But other considerations took over and I ran off to a foreign country to teach English.
In my free time I started studying Chinese, going to the gym, and spending a lot of time eating dinner and partying with friends. I read when I could, but writing didn’t seriously cross my mind for the first few years after graduation. Eventually, being a listless expat got old so I started getting intentional and reading things like What Color Is Your Parachute? and taking online personality tests to figure out what I was supposed to do. I even got a little bit into astrology trying to find the answer to question “What should I do with my life?” And all the results of all the tests, even my Gemini description, pointed to vocations where I could express myself and communicate, and being an author, content writer, or journalist was always suggested.
I timidly started writing tiny short stories. Really, they were more like extended metaphors: love as an ocean, life as a train journey. I asked the Internet how to become a writer, and she suggested internships. I got an editorial internship and then a job as an editor for a magazine, and I even wrote some articles. I started working on creative nonfiction stories in my free time. I felt more and more like a writer, though the writing I was paid to do took up more of my time than the writing I was inspired to do on my own. Then I got this job as a content writer. Having “writer” in my job title made me feel even more legit. Most recently, I started writing content for our website, and then I started this blog.
But a couple of months ago, I made a very poor decision. I wanted to be able to devote as much of myself as I had leftover from work and the website to my creative writing and this blog, so I quit cold turkey on the journalling.
In doing so, I denied myself an outlet that had been important and consistent to me since I was a child. And as work became more of a drain on my mental and emotional resources and the work on the website picked up, I had less of myself and less time to give to creative writing.
Writing is now a chore, except for the occasional blog post. It’s what I do for money, it’s why I have to sit in a cubicle, it’s a transferable skill and a line item on my resume.
It took a conversation on Friday with a writer friend to realize that I was one of a few writers she knew who weren’t writing (and I took it as no small compliment that she recognized me as a writer). But in unburdening myself to her I realized that genuine writers who aren’t writing are not pretentious braggarts, but are really unhappy people. There’s no arrogance there when someone who desperately wants to write can’t find or make the time to do it. That’s a sign of a spiritual blockage, of a disconnect with your muse, of a confusion of priorities and of inauthenticity, of bad faith. As time goes by, you can’t even call yourself a writer, even if you have your MFA and even if you’ve had a few things published, because writers write.
For me, turning my dream and habit of writing into a job whereby I get paid for generating content for other people has resulted in a lot of anxiety and irritability. I starve for extended periods of alone time so I can get the peaceful state of mind that I need to be in to write for myself without constantly checking my cell phone or Facebook, without feeling guilty about the state of the kitchen or feeling ambivalent about cooking a nice meal when I could be writing. I am fighting with the voices that tell me I need to go to the gym at 6 a.m., work through my lunch hour, stay late at the office, and pour myself into a website that will be monetized to be a good person and a worthwhile partner. I am begging the muses to give me a second chance, just as soon as I finish vacuuming the stairs and loading the dishwasher.
Denying myself that time and space to write feels more and more wearing somebody else’s ill-fitting jeans. None of the other roles I play–friend, sister, daughter, girlfriend, or employee–give me as much pleasure and as much of a sense of self-worth as writing, and not being able to do it because I have to be a friend, sister, daughter, girlfriend, or employee first leaves me with nothing leftover. And to recognize others as lonely and listless as I am makes me sad and worried for us all, though I am a little comforted to be in such respectable company.
But I gotta get out of this place. It’s weird and funky to believe that something you aren’t doing is the most important thing in the world to you, because if it really was, you would be doing it. Only no one would berate poor people or prisoners for not reaching their full potential. Even though I can see my way out of my otherwise pleasant office, being trapped in any job that sucks up all your most productive hours and takes a toll on you intellectually and emotionally without making you feel like a freer and better human being is a kind of incarceration and a hurdle to opportunity. I need to write, regularly and often, so I can look myself in the mirror as exactly the person I want to be.