Dormant, not dead: what happens when a writer isn’t writing?

Flashlight by ErmanlineLITERARY LIFE

By CANDACE CHANEY

Writers write, I know. This is the maximest maxim about literary life that exists.

And yet I am here to rebel against this sacrosanct law to say there may be intervals–days, weeks, years even–of a writer’s life where the words just won’t make it to the page but stay clogged in your mind like a backed up drain or hang heavy and unformed in the air, like a broken kite without its tail just flailing, flailing, flailing in a staccato wind.

Sometimes something happens–some event or turn of ideas in the mind–that is just too weighted and vast to be quickly and handily digested by ink and paper. Some hurts and epiphanies take a long time to season in the mind and heart before the pen knows what to make of them. And that’s okay.

For me that thing was a death in the family followed by a decade of toilsome relationships, more death, a breakdown or two, a few hundred nights at the theater, and a baby.

When my grandmother–who was like a second mother to me–died in her 60s about a decade ago, I traded my daily ritual of three pages of writing for long ruminative silences. I did not want to write down what I was feeling. Putting a name to it and giving it real estate on a page made it double real and double painful, although conventional advice would say I should wrestle all of those feelings out on the page. No. I didn’t feel like it. My grief takes the form of staring in silence. To suggest the scope and weight of what I was feeling could be conveyed on a page seemed like the worst vanity. I didn’t want to “use” this weight to fuel my creativity, I wanted to just let it be, to just be a person feeling difficult things. So I did.

Suddenly I stopped writing in my notebooks. I still carried one everywhere I went, like a powerful talisman I didn’t want to have to use, but they only contained grocery lists and scratches of ideas and confirmation codes for bills I’d paid. They didn’t even go in linear order anymore. I would pick a page in the middle and start writing—backwards and upside down. Every now and then a few sentences would leak out. “I am endeavoring to make it back to the page,” I would announce, and write nothing else. “I’m returning to the page, somehow, soon, I promise,” I would lie to myself.

I started a gig writing theater reviews and covering arts for the local newspaper; in that way I was writing more than ever, but it wasn’t the same as making my own art.

During this time I fell in love, twice, channeling the creativity that used to go into my art toward the transformation of young, fractured men into real, whole men. One of them gave me a baby that wouldn’t sleep for three years and refused all bottles and solid food for a year. My long periods of silence and staring continued, this time late into the night with the coos and grunts of a baby on my chest. There were words in the air I could have grabbed onto, letters floating on the wind I could have lassoed, but I left them where I found them and they dissolved like the edges of an interrupted dream.

I assuaged my ongoing guilt for not writing by recalling a conversation I had with a taxi driver who picked me up from a women’s writing conference years before.

“I have so many stories,” the wizened, plaid-capped driver said in a New York accent.

“You should write them down,” I said with smug optimism and a hillbilly accent I tried to hide.

“No way” he said protectively. “Those stories are mine.”

I was shocked that someone would not want to share their stories with the world. It was a new idea that keeping them under the hood, contained and private, might sometimes be more dignified and beautiful.

I understood what he meant when I was alone nursing my son late into the night. The feeling of his little warm mouth on my nipples, the rhythm of his sucking, the rise and fall of his little sighs, the endless songs I made up and sang on repeat for hours and hours while patting his little bottom so much my wrist hurt.

“These moments are ours,” I said to him. “No one will know but us and no one can ever take this away.”

What “this” was was peace and wonder and exhaustion and purpose. It was grace and toil, giggles and drool. It was a beauty too strange and new for me to render on the page as it was happening. It’s taken years to begin to cobble some understanding of it together so that I may, at long last, truly return to the page again. (Do I lie? Perhaps I lie. Don’t let me be a liar.)

Birth and death, the mysteries and curses of romantic love, all of these human experiences were swirling inside of me for the decade I didn’t write. And yes, sometimes I think “what a waste.” Sometimes I skewer myself for not writing enough, that I should have been busy “living the questions” like Rilke said instead of staring out of windows and just feeling all the feelings in the world. Sometimes I think all of this “it’s okay not to write” sentiment is just some apologist bullshit to make me feel better for abandoning my craft for a while, an elaborate form of laziness. Maybe.

But I truly don’t think that is the case. I think I was writing even when I wasn’t writing. I think I was pausing–a long time, yes–to season into a more fully human being. The things that were too heavy then, I can lift now. The things I didn’t understand are congealing into revelations. Writing is about conveying the human experience–what it feels like to be alive on earth at a certain place and time–and about making meaning. I was having a deeply human experience, but it took me years to understand what it all might mean. Now that I have digested them all in my mind and heart, I am at last ready to return to the page. Soon. I promise.

Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based poet and arts and culture journalist with deep roots in Eastern Kentucky. Her poems have been published in Limestone, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, and Kudzu. She regularly writes theater reviews and arts features for the Lexington Herald-Leader and other regional publications. She is also co-founder of the Imaginarium of the Bluegrass, an artist collective that explores the role of the imagination in our private and public lives, and was recently awarded the Katerina Stoykova Scholarship for The Gauntlet, an intensive generative workshop in which participants write 100 poems in a year. She is an excellent roller skater and bad cook.


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