This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
About two weeks ago, a new collection of essays was announced by an already established writer. The subject: adolescent, female friendships. The Instagram post, of this author sitting on a stoop surrounded by two of her girlfriends, sent a deadening chill down my spine. I felt myself turn hollow, my brain silent besides the cacophony of anxious ringing that happens whenever I experience a minor apocalypse. My memoir, my project, my baby, was now worthless.
That is, of course, not true. But in that moment, nothing felt more exact. How could there be two creative nonfiction books about female friendships that analyze and explore related forms of media? How could there be enough space in the world for both of our stories? This was my fault. I didn’t work hard enough, fast enough. I wasn’t spending three hours a day writing like one of my graduate school professors told me to. My father had been right: I simply wasn’t writing.
My revelation occurred mere minutes before I left for therapy that week. In the short car ride, I began to try and talk myself down the ledge: If her book does well, then, well, they’ll want more, right? And then mine will sell more easily, right? And, I mean, her book is about dealing with loss through female friendships, ya know. Mine is about the loss of female friendships. It’s totally different. My therapist, bless him, asked me when have writers ever not written something because somebody before them did. What about all the books about love? Loss? About death and war and missed connections? About misunderstood relationships and the people who occupy them? All writing has been touched by other writing which has been touched by other writing before that.
The presence of this other nonfiction work is not a direct competition or refusal of my own. Deep down, I know that. And each day I open my third draft up, it bubbles nearer the surface of my understanding. But I’ve realized—again, with therapy—that perhaps more than the fear that people wouldn’t care about something I’ve spent so much time on (my memoir), I was perhaps more upset that this author got to claim the subject matter before I did.
The semester has begun for me again. I’m teaching creative writing and first year writing, and we just finished the second week back. As part of my Thursday lecture, I played a couple clips from an interview with Billy Collins, the poet. In the clip, he talks about the secret desire of all writers and artists to be famous. “Writing is an act of hope,” he says. “In that you’re hoping someone will read you.”
I struggle, often, with the idea that I have to be faster than everyone else in order to be “successful,” or read. Whether I acknowledge it or not, my subconscious is very much of the mind that if someone is publishing their memoir at 27, then I need to do it at 25 (how old I am now). If someone got a residency program or fellowship, then I failed and need one too. In essence, I always feel like I am two steps behind. That I am always racing to catch up. That nothing I do will ever, really, be enough because I didn’t do it first, I didn’t do it young.
Recently, I attended a talk between author June Gervais and a local tattoo artist. Gervais is, I believe, in her 40s now, and just published her first novel. A novel that took two decades to write and edit and finalize. A novel she never gave up on. Listening to her share, I was reminded about the fact that writing shouldn’t be about tenuous, irrelevant markers of success. Writing should be about creating the thing, about molding and stewarding art. I think I often forget that. I think I often lose the artistry in the mad dash.
Vanessa Friedman, writer and friend of mine, just published her first newsletter in months after losing her job, getting married, searching for new jobs, and various other family-related minor catastrophes that occurred in between. The newsletter documented much of what has happened between then and now, the anxiety and worry that’s followed her around. The entire thing is beautifully written and touching, but one section stood out to me the most. The section where she writes about not writing: “Life was happening, I suppose I mean. I didn’t make time for writing. I was busy living, and also, I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. Or perhaps I just didn’t want to say anything. I have shared so much of myself through my writing for almost twenty years now. Maybe I just wanted to be quiet for a little while.”
I talk often about slowing down because it’s something I want so desperately to do but routinely sabotage myself against. I want to be able to live life first and write about it later. I want to understand that some projects may take twenty years but that does not diminish its goodness, its worth. I want to feel excited and proud of my fellow writers when they accomplish something I haven’t, instead of taking it as direct proof of my own undoing. My own inability.
But that is going to take time.
Still, in the brief moments I slip beneath the surface of slowing down, I feel peace. The prickling of my body relaxes, breathing deep down in my belly comes easily again. Annie Dillard once wrote she could “quite simply go wild.” Maybe I can, too. Writing on my terms, creating for myself.