Writing Life,  Writing Process

The Need to Write

Ever since I returned to school to become a writer, I have spent August prepping essays to submit for publication. I read drafts filed away when summer began. I clean up whatever messiness I find. I research what journals might enjoy those essays. Then, when those publications open, I am ready to go.

But not this August. This August, I submitted not a single essay.

After weeks spent stress baking instead of writing, come August 1st, my annual ritual gave me the drive to return to my desk. I gathered three essays I put aside months earlier and tried tidying them up. They seemed fine, maybe even good, but they felt unfulfilled. Maybe if I kept submitting submitting submitting, the essays would have eventually found a home. Instead, I spent the month writing new drafts, then put those away to revisit them once again with fresh eyes. On one hand, I was excited that those essays seemed deeper than I once gave them credit for. I looked forward to exploring new connections and new ideas. But on the other hand, I felt frustrated that this meant I had nothing to publish. This frustration was not because those essays needed more work. Nor was it because I would have to wait longer for readers to experience what I had made. I was frustrated because I wouldn’t add another line to my CV, couldn’t show others proof of my writing.

In May, after a hellish five years, I graduated with my PhD in English. For years, I worked toward my dream of becoming a creative writing professor, which meant stressing over my CV. For months, I watched the pandemic worsen the already terrible job market, and I soon found myself, for the first time in a decade, outside academia. I had seen talented friends, much more talented than I, stop writing once they left school. I worried—more than worried, freaked out—that I put in years of study for nothing. That now writing would become just some thing that I used to do.

During my MFA, a professor said the key in continuing to write was to transform writing from a want to a need. We create excuses to avoid what we want—don’t feel well today, I’d like to see that movie with those friends, I can do it tomorrow—but if we need to write, we will. Academia, I thought, would provide that need. I needed to publish to get a job, to earn tenure, to stand in front of a classroom with confidence as I explain how to write. Now, there was no need to write. So afraid of losing writing, I made myself write every day, even if only for a few minutes.

I have never found such joy in writing as I have these past few months of having no need to write. I rediscovered the amazement one can feel as they figure out an essay. I focused my concentration on the memoir I have worked on for eight years. Immediately, when revising (for the thirtieth time) the opening chapter about my parents’ divorce, on a whim, I thought research into Greek mythology might be the missing piece. And it was, surprisingly. Throughout the fall, I moved from essay to essay, chapter to chapter, unlocking what I had I struggled with, in some cases, for half a decade.

The only thing that seemed to change about my process was the realization that I had time. That there was no need to do anything but write. Write and think. I am slow at everything I do. Just ask my old cross-country coach. Each night, when I sat down to write, I only concentrated on the vague notion of making progress. No word counts. No page counts. Only my own feeling that I was further today than I was yesterday. My writing time was no longer centered around completion, around publication. It was meditation. I meditated on the content of my essays, and I meditated on my writing process. My writing time every day ended up lasting hours. I would have to force myself away and off to bed. On days I had headaches or felt frustrated with my job, it was easier to sit down to write. I didn’t have to accomplish anything, so I didn’t have anything to be upset about if I didn’t get it done. I only had to work on my writing in some way. Some nights, I paced for the first hour, thinking through a transition.

This does not mean that every day was joyous. Some problems I tried to solve in my work frustrated me, but none of it was stressful. There was no reason to stress. All I could do was write. I could either accept that or let myself get stressed out. I finish less drafts than I used to. I spend longer on every sentence. But the writing is stronger, deeper, more concise. I make more progress in a single draft than I used to in three drafts.

The other day, as I thought about the year ending, I realized this is the first year in almost a decade that I have had zero acceptances. Not a single piece of writing was accepted for publication. Part of that is due to me barely submitting this year. I think I received only ten or so rejections. But, mostly, I think, I used to be so consumed with publishing that I rushed my work out, and just kept submitting submitting submitting. Every essay I ever publication has been revised in a meaningful way after I began submitting, and began receiving rejections. Some work never found a home. When I look at my rejections, I agree with 95% of them. Those drafts were not ready. And the worst thing is, I realized, is that the writing has always been there for me. When I think of good times in my writing life, it is always times I figured out problems in my work and solved them. It is always when I realized new connections, surprised myself, made myself laugh, made myself cry. When I publish, I feel good that day of the acceptance, maybe as long as a week. But that fades. Only the writing remains.

As I craft my New Years resolutions for 2021, for the first time in years, I have no item about publishing. If I publish, great. If I don’t, that’s fine too. My items are about writing. Finish my memoir. Write a draft of a new short story. Revise two old essays. Going forward, I don’t need to write. I want to write. And that’s enough.

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