Looking back, I probably should have lied. It would have been more cordial. The woman was only making conversation, after all — not looking to meet my demons.
“Do you enjoy writing?” the nice mother asked me at back-to-school night last week as we both folded our overtall, underbendy bodies into the high school English class desks.
“Oh, yes,” I should have replied warmly. “Very much. Of course. More than anything. Who doesn’t?”
Instead I spat “NO!” even as her mouth was still forming the half smile that comes from enunciating the last syllable of “writing.” It quickly snapped into the pursed lips of surprise and then slid into a wounded frown. I instantly regretted my frankness.
But the question. The question. It’s like asking someone if she enjoys vomiting. Or picking up all the rotten, fly-infested fruit in the yard. Or disinfecting the toilet. Nobody likes that stuff; it’s misery. But it has to be done occasionally, and when it’s over — well, things are very pleasant for a spell.
I hate writing and always have. In college, I majored in English because I figured that having to write papers all the time would help me get over my dread of putting thoughts into words and words onto paper and paper into the hands of another literate human being who may or may not agree with, relate to, or understand me. It didn’t work, of course; I just felt dread far more often. And then, having become a sort of dread junkie — I became a professional writer.
Even now, though, when I have written work due almost daily, I’ll writhe and squirm for hours before forcing my fingers onto the keyboard, creating a new document and trying to etch meaning onto its vast, menacing whiteness. If you could see me spasming about my home in petulant avoidance, rifling about the junk mail on my counter, busying my eyes and hands with suddenly enthralling coupon books, poking through the pantry in search of Just Exactly the Right Portion of Just Exactly the Right Snack, filling a glass of water only to find that I’ve already got two full glasses of water at my desk, oh, would you look at that, I guess I’d better empty a couple of them into the houseplants now … well, you’d mock me mercilessly and rightly so.
Like a lot of writers, I’m terrified of having nothing to say, or worse — having something to say and being unable to say it clearly, to say it well. That’s breech labor for a scribe, an excruciating stopping up of production, of creation. It makes my head pound, as though the proper phrasing were running around frantically in my skull, lost and unable to find its way out onto the welcoming page.
In the English class where I cloddishly confessed my contempt for my own occupation, we parents learned that our kids would be reading Conrad and Poe, Shakespeare and Morrison this semester. It’s hard to imagine such literary titans, such masterful communicators, wrestling with writerly insecurities or twitching through willful avoidance rituals. But surely Heart of Darknessand “The Cask of Amontillado” didn’t just come tumbling out of those authors’ exceptional brains? Is it possible that Hamlet and Beloved are the intricate, haunting results of some particularly productive hair-pulling and above-average snack-hunting?
I believe that good writers forge a connection across time and space with the anonymous reader on the other side of the page, making them feel understood. Unmasked. Un-alone. It’s an ambitious goal — so forgive me if it stresses me out. But as long as I’m still being honest, I’ll confess that there’s actually one aspect of writing that I do enjoy.