When writers answer the question “why do you write?” they will inevitably answer in a timeless way. There’s always a hole that is undoubtedly being filled with writing. The hole is personal, it is deep, and it is gnawing. Sometimes it’s quiet, hibernating in a place we can’t quite see. And other times it aches, creeps up on you weighs down on you. Writing is a thing people do about the hole; whether it’s to fill the hole, or distract from the hole, is anybody’s guess. I didn’t want to invoke existential horror in the first paragraph I wrote on my blog, but I guess it’s too late for that. In the words of Slavoj Žižek, “my whole economy of writing is in fact based on an obsessional ritual to avoid the actual act of writing.”
In a similar way, people who enjoy math, or gardening, or Candy Crush, use those as ways to fill (or distract from) the hole. Writing is important to people, therapeutically, even when it’s not about symptoms and illnesses. We write as writers, as members of a sort of lax community bound loosely by a creative task that brings joy to each of us in different ways. So if writers write, if that’s what gives us access to “writer”-ness, what about writers who are having trouble writing? When some writers say things like, “I’m not writing right now,” or, “I’ve got writer’s block,” or, “writing isn’t going well” as a cry for help, others might balk at the idea that they ever had a choice in the matter. It transforms writing as activity into writing as calling. The negation is less threatening than the possibility. “What do you mean I could do anything else? What do you mean I could not be a writer?”
From personal experience, this occurs after I put writing on a pedestal. Writers have to give a lot of power to writing in order to dedicate a good amount of their time to it; why else would we do something if we don’t love it? When we put writing on a pedestal, it becomes not only art form, but shit storm. It’s only natural that, post-pedestal, we are seemingly metaphysically drawn to it, basking in the story as if it were sunlight, or a warm embrace. And when you take it away, we age, we slink to the ground, we cry out, we wither, we turn to dust.
There are plenty of reasons why writers have a hard time writing. Recently, I’ve been having a terrible time writing. It wasn’t because I was not activating my *writerly powers* for want of trying. For me, it was the simple fact that I wasn’t reading. Everyone knows that one half of writing is reading: it is perhaps the single most quotable piece of advice given to young writers. While this is true, different people work in different ways. Some magical people alternate, I imagine, between periods of reading and writing, like counting odd and even numbers. I’m not one of them. I need the simultaneous consumption and production. So when I’m not reading, I’m not writing.
In the last year, I stopped reading the way I used to. It was a hectic time. I had been working on graduating college and pouring all of my time into two end-of-college projects that really sapped my ability to do anything else. In philosophy, I wrote a capstone (undergrad thesis-lite) which required reading *he-who-must-not-be-named* until my eyes were rolling into the back of my skull with simultaneous learning and un-learning, which I will undoubtedly write a blog post about later. In creative writing, I wrote a novella of some length which went through writing and drafting and to this day haunts my dreams with its need for another six-hundred revisions. I can’t thank the professors who helped me out on these projects enough: I learned so very much through the experiences, and they really kicked my ass into gear when I needed help.
When I graduated, I needed a break. I think I took too long of a break, though, because the slog back to where I was beforehand is a bit more daunting than I remember it being. Where I used to inhale stories, memoirs, articles, essays, now I nibble at the corners, tasting them with a few licks before determining if I want to read more than two pages at a time, in between commercial breaks of Law and Order: SVU.
But then I remembered that life wasn’t always about being depressed. After six months of trying to make it through Giovanni’s Room, a 200 page walk in the park compared to Hegel, I remembered that I used to be really into fantasy. Golly, I hadn’t read a piece of genre fiction in years. This was my chance! I was allowed to read whatever I wanted again! Wait, wait, wait… anything I wanted? Fuck it, I’m reading something stupid.
So when I got home one day, I went into my shelves and picked up Steven Erikson’s elaborately titled, “Malazan Book of the Fallen: Gardens of the Moon” and went to town. One thing I will say: when you take a four year break off of the “high fantasy” you grew up with, read exclusively literary stories, and come back, you will probably shit yourself laughing. Never in my life had I seen more shoulder shrugging, eyebrow furrowing, or “witty banter” — dialogue that Aaron Sorkin would react to with: “It’s a bit over the top.” Political intrigue is mapped out by fat alchemists talking to bear-sized ravens. Have you ever wanted to read epitaphs at the beginning of every chapter that quote excerpted epic poetry from the universe of the story? Are you sure? Because nuance is nothing compared to the thrill of a book that made me question the selectivity of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
But I’m reading it. Nay. I’m inhaling it.
People online seem to be in agreement about how crappy Malazan book one is, but hey, I’m not really here to mine for literary gold. If I want to actually be stimulated, I read Giovanni’s Room. If I want terror wolves fighting magically enhanced marionettes, I have an outlet for that. As far as I’m concerned, they’re both getting me through something. I don’t really want to write like Erikson, but more power to him for writing the things that I am turning off my brain to enjoy wholeheartedly.
In this way, after the dry spell, I think I am re-teaching myself how to enjoy reading. I’m re-teaching myself to read. Writing is a complicated field that doesn’t have a lot of answers, so the best we can do sometimes is put our best foot forward and hope for the best. I need to stretch my eyes a bit, do some jumping jacks, ease myself back onto the track. I do this so I don’t hurt myself when I pick up my legs and run.