Against Writing 

Permission to do something else

Wednesday, Feb 24 1999
Art by Michiko Stehrenberger

The Right to Write is an essential tool for all writers, even, or perhaps especially, for those who do not yet realize they are writers.

—Dave,Amazon.com reader(5 stars)

It was a familiar narrative — rapid, raw and confessional, with the usual half-bitten-off sentences, the usual dark stripe of guilt running through the center:

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She was a marketing executive, 40-ish, successful, but finding herself more and more bored with it. On a whim, she’d signed up for a fiction class at UCLA Extension — what few people from her "business" life know is that she used to love to write fiction in college, in her 20s, way back when! But then, of course, for some reason . . . (faint exhalation) . . . she stopped.

Anyway, she loved this class, loved the teacher, met some really great people, felt all fired up, started three short stories she was really excited about . . .

And now, six months later, she finds she can barely drag herself to the computer.

"I was so frustrated last night," she says as I pass her the salad. "I was so frustrated last night that I decide to start journaling ABOUT my frustration. I treat it like an exercise. ‘Okay,’ I ask myself, ‘why do I have such a hard time just SITTING DOWN AND WRITING?’ I make a list."

She ticks off the items on her fingers.

"A) I hate the solitude of it. B) When I’m at home, it seems like there are just a million things I’d rather be doing — cleaning the house, watching Biography, giving myself a pedicure!" Wry laughter, recovery. "C) Every time I reread what I have, my inner critic turns on and I start feeling like maybe the idea of my story is not very good . . ." Her eyes grow wide — there’s moisture. Her voice drops.

"And then I start thinking about my dad . . ."

"The retired engineer?" I ask.

"Uh-huh. I think about how five years ago he wrote this novel, a mystery novel, and the sad thing is . . ." The hands close into fists. "He never DID anything with it! Never sent it out to one publisher, to one agent!" She refills her wine glass, shrugs, her tone turning casual. "Sure, the book had problems. It was 500 pages, some of the sections rambled, he hadn’t really bothered to edit it . . ." The keening timbre returns. "But to just LEAVE it! To just never follow UP, never DO anything!

"Do you see?" she agonizes. "Because of the WEIGHT of all this, I find it hard to give myself . . . Permission To Write."

I ponder her situation. The unexplained 20-year break from writing, the hatred of solitude, the chronic revulsion felt when rereading her own pieces.

"There is another possibility," I say.

"Yes?" she leans in.

"Maybe you’re JUST . . . NOT . . . A WRITER."

That’s right — I said it to her, and I say it now to you . . . lounging as you are in Starbucks, Learning Annex catalogs fanned out in front of you, dreamily reading author essays ABOUT writing when you could be at home, reading our books! (Preferably in hardback. If those were still in print. Which they’re not. Thanks to you.) What this essay is, in short, is a long-overdue INTERVENTION . . .

Oh come on now! Come back here. Come back. There is a lot of love here, a lot of love, TOUGH love . . . and YOU’RE GOING TO ENJOY IT! That’s right. I’m going to SPANK you in this essay, and then I’m going to rub the red spot with my open palm . . .

Which is what we crave, don’t we? That’s why we are all so addicted, first of all — not to writing, but to writing WORKSHOPS. I’m in sympathy because I’m an addict myself. Barely reformed. In fact, it’s all I can do not to just RUN OFF AND JOIN ONE RIGHT NOW! Ohhhh yes. Just thinking about cracking open a Brand New Writing Workshop brings a sharp little pang . . .

The moment the Famous Writer sweeps into that classroom that very first day! The Famous Writer, typically a fabulously shattered-looking person in his late 50s — shattered and yet surprisingly . . . LEAN and LITHE (yoga?) in his boot-cut jeans and Navajo vest, crowned with silver-shot, yet leonine, hair.

The blue-and-white Kinko’s bag . . . the crisp cut of pages . . . the circle of pale faces . . . and your first critique! Which is absolutely terrible. The teacher (in little round John Lennon glasses today), as calm and unforgiving as a sheer rock cliff, seems to SEE RIGHT THROUGH YOU. "Sandra," he announces, in front of the whole room. "You write facilely, and quickly, but without really THINKING. It’s like you’re AFRAID, AFRAID to go deeper. You might want to think about what makes you so AFRAID . . . to show up . . . on the page."

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