In Defense of Not Writing #39: Saying Goodbye

This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.  

Nearly two weeks ago, I said goodbye to my creative writing students. It was my first semester getting to teach a designated poetry and prose class, and I don’t know if it was the subject matter or the kids or something in the air or a combination of all three, but it was one of those semesters, two of those classes, that make you grateful to be a teacher. That make saying goodbye, hard.

I stood in front of them, in those last five minutes, and told them how deeply they touched me as writers. I asked them to keep with it, to not let the drudgery of college and life stop them from continuing to tap into this creative source. I said writing is a process, one I’m honored to share with them. And I cried as both of my classes filed out of their respective rooms. 

One of my students later emailed her response to the second-to-last writing prompt I gave them, titled “Why I Write.” It was inspired by the Didion speech of the same name, which is inspired by the Orwell essay of the same name. We read the Lit Hub transcription of Didion’s Berkeley address at two points in the semester, at the very beginning of our time together, and then as we entered creative nonfiction. It was their turn, then, to consider all the work we’d done and come up with a manifesto to carry with them for the days to come.

In her’s, she wrote about being a young writer. About the stories that filled her head as a child, and all the tales she stowed away into notebooks. How high school kicked that love out of her and it’d been years since she’d written something. In just this semester, she wrote a dozen stories. “It felt like coming home,” she ended.

And she wasn’t the only one. Students thanked me for bringing writing back into their lives, for teaching them it’s a process that doesn’t get easier, but you learn to love. That the grittiness and perseverance becomes a sort of drug. Saying goodbye, I made them promise to attend my community writing hour. It was like inducting them into the “real world” of writing outside our classroom, like a switch. We were peers now.

This is my last column with Write or Die Magazine, and since I’m a writer, I’m feeling incredibly sentimental about it. If I’m being honest, I’d never stop writing these “In Defense of Not Writing” pieces (and I might not, who is really to say—Substack, maybe?), but Write or Die is choosing to move away from columns in general, and so I don’t really have a say. I will say, however, that “In Defense of Not Writing” was ironically the most consistent thing I wrote and worked on for the twenty-one months I’ve been doing it. Every two weeks, like clockwork, I’d be forced to dig through my life for something meaningful, and churn out 800 words about the topic. It was methodical, a good practice. Something that kept me going.

So it feels like a really big deal to say goodbye to it. And I’m worried what will become of my practice with it gone. Recently, I read Getting Lost by Annie Ernaux, the author’s published diary entries from her year-long affair with a Russian officer. In it, she refers often to being unable to write during that time. The affair consumed her, destroyed her ability to think of anything else. Even as she desperately wants to work on her novel, she can’t. It’s only as the relationship begins to break down, that it seems every diary entry mentions the word.

“Now to live is to write, and I don’t know what to write, or where to begin,” she says. 

The task of writing my column always felt monumental. “I have nothing to write about,” escaped my lips more often than not. And maybe an hour later, there they would be: Those 800 words. Sprawled on the page as if they came through me—myself unable to remember how we got here.

I know I’ll never stop writing, or stop being a writer. Even as Annie takes a year off from the task, she’s constantly writing these entries. A paragraph or two, here or there, when the mood strikes. It’s funny to read her musings or anxieties about the unfinished book, of the year with no writing, when there seems to be so much being said. I know “In Defense of Not Writing” was like that for me. I often felt, during these nearly two years, that I was never writing enough. But I now have this archive to prove me wrong.

Yes, it’s just a column. But, I will miss it. Dearly. The planning, the conversations, and all the living that made it possible. Because that’s the message I returned to time and again: To write, and to write well, you have to live, and live well.

As Annie says, “Why believe that I suffer more because I ‘am’ a writer? (It’s not that I am a writer—I write, and I live.)”

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