When I was young, around the age of twelve, I’d start my mornings by making a to-do list. I also incorporated a schedule for the tasks. Homework, studying, practicing the violin, reading, “free time,” mealtimes, bedtime: they all got a specified chunk of minutes. I crossed off the goals as I met them. The daily itinerary was ambitious, impossibly so, and it made me perpetually anxious. Not surprisingly, my middle-grade years were pretty miserable.
I kept a journal during this period, too. Instead of devoting it to my pains, anticipations, opinions, and worries; I turned it into an uninspired log in which, on a nightly basis, I wrote about what I’d accomplished earlier, as if I had decided the point of the journal was to end each day with some halfhearted, missions-accomplished fanfare. It wasn’t that I had nothing significant to share. Terrible, interesting, humiliating, and funny things happened to me, just as they happen to everybody. It was that I didn’t want to divulge them or their effect on me, not even to my diary. (I think about that old reticence now. I wonder about it.) The only good thing I can say about this ritual is that I was faithful to it. I wrote in a journal every evening before going to bed. Doing so, of course, was on the itinerary. From my local bookstore, I regularly bought those pretty cloth-covered books with lined pages and filled them with a redundant I did this then this then this. “Nothing books,” I used to call them. Only now do I perceive the irony.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I gave up both the lousy schedule-making and the tedious journal-writing when I joined the poetry writing club my freshman year of high school. What I couldn’t do in a journal, I, for some reason, felt free to explore in a poem. The form unlocked my reservations. It gave me permission to feel and share. It urged me to notice the world, to pay attention to it, like what a hard frost on a lawn looks like, how it sheathes the grass, how it sounds underfoot, what I am walking toward as I cross that crunch of green, what I am running away from, what that first hard frost means, what it means to me.
Poetry writing felt transformative, necessary. It prevented me from worrying about what I hadn’t finished and what I had yet to do. It simultaneously drew from and operated outside of the grind of the everyday. It made me present. It brought me joy.
Last week, I had a conversation with two writing friends that left me feeling unsettled. Both of these writers have found success—indeed, by any reasonable measure, great success: publications, favorable attention. And yet both of them were decidedly unhappy. Unhappy that their successes weren’t greater. Unhappy that what they’d managed to achieve was so hard-won, so exhausting. Exhausting: yes. They sounded wiped out. One even said she was thinking about giving up writing entirely.
There are, in fact, many things that can dampen writers’ zeal and sap their enthusiasm, creativity, confidence, and happiness: a work-in-progress that isn’t progressing, a dearth of inspiration, publisher or agent conflicts, rejections, lackluster reviews, and the expectation to get out there and SELL THOSE BOOKS! So many obligations go with this profession—attending festivals, visiting bookstores, self-promoting, growing a platform, hustling, hustling, hustling, with charm and charisma and hopefully youth and beauty and sex-appeal, too. Many of these engagements are fun and exciting, but there’s no getting around the fact that some aren’t. There’s also no escaping the reek of desperation and the whiff of competition that accompany so much of the rigmarole. Even when such experiences are fun and exciting, they aren’t, alas, what a writer needs to do. Which is write.
Writers wear a lot of hats—teacher, speaker, reader, salesperson, book-signer, Tweeter, panel discussion participant. They wear them for good and bad reasons. But these hats aren’t what make a writer a writer. Only writing does that.
When I was a middle schooler, I kept a journal that wasn’t a journal. I called it a journal. It looked like one. And doggedly, dependably, I filled the “journal” (and then some) with many words. But I might as well have been scribbling. Without reflecting and expressing, without putting into language all that makes life life—the fretting, ranting, hoping, mourning, and celebrating—I didn’t accomplish much. The ritual was dishonest. A farce. Fortunately, I found poetry. Genuine and mysterious poetry, thrilling and surprising poetry. Composing it was a meaningful exercise: a way in to deepen my understanding of the world around me and tap my inner world. A means to summon joy.
“A writing profession” and “a writing life” aren’t the same thing. They certainly overlap, but if the profession eclipses the passion for creating, there goes the light. A lot of what people (publishers, editors, bloggers, other writers) say a writer must do in order to be a successful writer strikes me as icky, suspect, farcical, and even antithetical to the essence of the vocation.
I hope every writer can keep some part of his or her writing life sacred and impregnable. A core that can’t be marketed, publicized, rated, or reviewed. A heart that can’t be quelled or sold. This center should be a citadel. Protect it. Poetry and magic happen there.