This week, I started to be afraid I would never write again.
A few weeks ago, I was afraid that I would never write well enough again. The enough is important: “I want to write well enough to include this in my senior project.” “I want to write well enough to be able to improve this for my senior project.” “I want to write well enough that I’m not embarrassed to show this to my adviser.” “I want to write well enough that I’m not embarrassed to look at this myself.”
Now, after a couple weeks of no productivity, I just want to write.
In the fall of my sophomore year, I faced a similar period in which I didn’t write for months. I went to classes and meetings and the dining hall and the most vivid thing I remember from that time is how surprisingly not vivid the world seemed. A recently converted English major, I identified strongly with Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost, who saw the world change from one thing to another worse thing.
There are a lot of things that happen to a writer — to me — when the spiraling and suffocating anxiety of not-writing begins, though I have heard it is very normal to be anxious about writing and very normal to have times when creativity fails. A trusted adviser told me that she, too, often had periods where “words were absent.” For her, these periods had lasted, in some cases, for years.
But not to write is to lose a dimension of experience.
Anne Lamott, who wrote “Bird by Bird,” the only book on writing that has ever had the necessary quota of black humor, panic and swear words to appeal to me (she recommends the “shitty first draft” strategy), tells us that we experience the world differently in order to write. “Try walking around with a child who’s going, “Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!” And the child points and you look, and you see, and you start going, “Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!” I think this is how [writers] are supposed to be in the world — present and in awe.”
Writing isn’t the kind of vocation that happens in any tense other than the present: An “aspiring novelist” hasn’t written a novel. Maybe not even a chapter of a novel. Maybe not even the first word of the first sentence of a novel.
Yesterday, I re-watched an old YouTube video in which a tiny French girl named Capucine tells a story about hippopotamuses, magic and Winnie the Pooh. I envied the directness of her childlike invention, but it made me realize that writing offers a space for the same type of creativity.
At Yale, it also offers a community. We write in class, in the News, in book reviews and literary magazines, in collaboration — not just alone. When I was agonizing over where to go to college, a teacher told me, “Harvard is a school of economists. Yale has writers.”
I don’t want to demean economists or suggest that economists can’t be writers. But Yale is a place where everything from the flyers advertising poetry readings to the tables stocked with books outside Labyrinth act as reminder to write. Here I learned how to turn in Anne-Lamott-style first drafts to writing classes and how to meet a deadline and talk to other students about the work that we’re doing.
Here, I learned that we cannot always write well, and sometimes we want to write and cannot. Selfishly, I don’t want to be one of those people who’s having a hard time writing, but at least trying to write has reminded me of, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote in a letter to Robert Lowell, “that rare feeling of control, illumination” — the euphoria of writing when everything works. She described a sense of possibility: “Everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry — or not material, seemed to be poetry … If only one could see that way all the time!” The only thing left then is to write it.
And that’s where I am right now: in the domain of the not-yet-written.
Elisa Gonzalez is a senior in Pierson College.