when david alan grier hosted ‘saturday night live,’ there was a very funny sketch about news anchors whose lives slid into bedlam when their teleprompters went dead. they had no idea what to do. they froze and looked around the set wide-eyed, looking for answers, and finding none, panic set in. hysterics and lawlessness took over. one of the anchors beheaded the weather man in a fit of frenzy as another shrieked please make the words come back!
this has been my life for the last 10 years. i have wanted to be a writer since i learned to read. i didn’t know it then, but looking back, ive always been head over heels in love with language. i used to sit for hours with books and just copy the text onto reams of my mother’s printer paper. i just loved words. i felt like i was doing something when i wrote them. it didn’t matter that they were someone else’s words. they were words, and that i knew how to make them was a big deal. i wrote my first poem when i was 8 years old. it was about halloween, and it didn’t rhyme, but somehow i knew that that was okay.
i knew very early that i was a good writer. my teachers accused me of plagiarism all the time, starting in the 4th grade. english teachers used my papers as examples of distinguished work. i knew that people thought i had talent, but that didn’t mean anything special to me until i took a standardized test in middle school. one of the open-ended questions asked us to respond to a scene of a forest being destroyed from the point of view of an Indian living in the forest. i used two sheets of paper to complete my answer. there was drama, description; my hand was on fire and i couldn’t stop it. all i could do was feed it more paper until it burned out. that answer was on my mind all the way home. it was good. it was good. *i* was good. i had written something good. i told my mother about it when i got home.
my mother. she was an aspiring writer herself when she was younger. she had a book of handwritten poetry that i would sneak upstairs to read sometimes while she was away at work. naturally, she encouraged my literary habits, taking me often to the library and to bookstores, to plays, the ballet—anything creative. when i was 12, she took me to see Les Miserables for the first time, now our favorite musical. we listened to the soundtrack everyday for two weeks leading up to opening night. one afternoon, i sat at the table writing down the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, Eponine’s “On My Own”, as my mother sang along with Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream.”
but the tigers come at night/with their voices soft as thunder
"don’t you wish you could write like that?" my mother said with a dreamy sigh. i looked up from my notebook, half puzzled.
my mother, taken aback, said, “oh. well, do it then!”
i decided that i wanted to be a poet at 16, and i wrote everyday. i still have with me a manilla folder full of poems that i typed and printed on reams of computer paper similar to the kind i used to copy text on with a number two pencil on saturday mornings. i shared my work. i devoured the positive feedback and glowed when someone asked me for help with something they were working on. i read voraciously—Edgar Allen Poe was my favorite poet, hands down, and still is, to this day. i discovered the harlem renaissance and played with what it meant to use poems as tools, as weapons. my mother bought me the collected works of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni; my father, knowing less about his kid and her interests, bought me the complete works of Robert Frost. as a birthday gift, my niece, then 7 years old, had an author who was visiting her school autograph her book for me because she knew i liked books. writing was my thing, and everyone knew it. they supported me and i settled into it because there wasn’t anything i liked better. and besides, i wasn’t good at anything else.
i outgrew poetry in college. in the midst of a really, really racist campus environment, i found journalism a much more powerful tool, so i gravitated more toward essays and articles for the school paper. i also began blogging around this time, keeping an online journal wherein i pored all of my angst—a generally tumultuous history of my relationships with men, including a broken relationship with my father; my first love; being unhappy on campus, etc. there was plenty to write about, and though i wasn’t writing poetry anymore, i still wrote plenty.
by the time i graduated, i was over poetry altogether. this was at the height of the spoken word boom in my neck of the woods, and i’m sure that contributed to my new attitude towards it. i found poetry and poets, in general, to be pretentious and full of shit for lack of better wording. this is when writing first became difficult for me. i’d sit with my notebook and pen in hand, just like i always had, and i’d wait for something to happen. when nothing did, i willed something to happen. what came out was horrible; flat, boring, uninspired. just as pretentious as everyone i made fun of. so, i put down poetry and picked up prose. it worked until it didn’t anymore. eventually i found myself in an immense drought and tried waiting patiently for the words to come back. sometimes i’d panic like the news anchors in the SNL sketch, but i’d beat it back or ignore it enough to keep the little flame of hope burning. eventually i started a blog to write silly, mindless things until the real words came back. and while waiting, i started another. and another. just something to keep the juices flowing while i waited. some of those blogs gained modest popularity and lead to some pretty cool opportunities for me, which eventually landed me where i am now: supporting myself (BARELY) as a writer with a couple of freelance gigs under my belt.
but, i’m still waiting.
i’m still trying to write. i’m good at being silly, yes, and i don’t mind it, but i still miss that fire, that thing that made me sit and copy text from books for hours. i miss being able to sit down and not be eaten alive by anxiety over whether or not what i’m writing is good or feeling like i’m trying to make a snowman of dry sand. and that is what writing is for me now. it is not fulfilling. at all. i know that the process of writing isn’t fun for most writers, nor is it easy. and i’m not looking for it to be fun or easy, but i do want it to be fulfilling. after i’ve sat at my keyboard and bled and cried and screamed for hours, i want to be able to look at the baby i just birthed and feel like all of it was worth it. i never do. it never is.
when i sit to write something—not a blog post about some celebrity’s horrible wig or a goofy post about crunk song lyrics, but really write something—i feel a ball of anxiety right in the middle of my chest, so palpable i sometimes put my hand over my heart to see if i can feel it there beneath the skin. i poke a stick into the side of my imagination; i try to tap that thing, that something that i know must be in there, somewhere; i look for that part of me that told my mother that i could, at 12 years old, write as good as Alain Boubil and i find nothing but a handful of frustration, ground teeth, and the gnawed insides of my jaws.
i know that i can write. i recognize now—and it took fire and brimstone for me to be able to say this—that i am a very, very talented writer. i have the potential, but… something is missing. something is gone. im angered to the point of tears at not being able to express exactly what that is or what i mean, but something isn’t there anymore. the words that do come out are so forced and stale and pitiful and meaningless. they’re meaningless. i end up trying to string together chains of pretty words and metaphors to give the illusion of depth, but i can’t fool myself. i see right though me. i feel empty, hollow. pay no attention to that lump of wasted talent behind the curtain.
and that’s exactly how i feel. i’ve gone through my adult life amassing an impressive arrays of attempts and excuses, squandering precious time that could be otherwise used in some productive way, like running a marathon or having a baby or counting the kernels of corn in my poop. first i couldn’t write because i was living in philly and stressed about the goings on at home, so i moved home. then i couldn’t write because i was living at home with my mom and it stressed me out, so i moved out. then i couldn’t write because my anxiety was getting in the way, so i got a pill for that and got it in check. then i couldn’t write because i may have had ADD, so i got that diagnosed and got a pill for that that kind of helped. then i couldn’t write because i hated my job, so i got laid off with unemployment benefits and had all the time in the world plus money to live on.
the perfect storm—the perfect set up: no 9-5, money to eat, family to support me in the event that i don’t have what i need. just time to write. and i feel like i have nothing to show for it.
i recognize that this is my defeatist nature coming out. i can barely see the good/amazing things that i do accomplish, but every slip, every crack, every single fault or failed goal grows to the size of mount kilimanjaro and makes a home of my shoulders. i just feel like there should be more. i should have done more. i should be writing more. but i feel so spent. barren as the inside of a drum.
the things that i’m writing are fine, but not what i want. of the audience that i have scrambled together, i feel like none of them really know how good i actually am and at this point in my life, i’m worried that they’ll never see it, and i’ll never see it again.
maybe i don’t really have anything to say anymore? what if writing will always only be a chore, something else on my to-do list? something that i loathe as much as having to go to work in a cubicle answering someone else’s phones all day?
what do i do? what do you do when you’ve tried everything but giving up?
is that the last thing on the list?
what do you do when you’ve reached the very bottom of the well?
this afternoon was absolutely beautiful and perfect. i’d successfully kicked a threatening case of bronchitis and the weather was bordering on 80. the clouds were high, the sun was higher, and the sky was the bluest its ever been. after a week of wallowing in another pool of feelings not unlike this one (but far worse, thanks to PMS), i finally got up and into my office, ready to finally put some work in. cross some things off the to do list. write something.
i put on some lianne la havas and out of nowhere a jolt hit me. i wanted to write something, something creative. i want to make something and i’m ready to do it. i instantly felt terrified, because i knew what could happen: i get all situated and ready to capitalize on the moment and bam, i fuck it up. i sit and try to write and nothing is there. nothing comes out, so i force something out, and i get mad and anxious and feel like a failure. that’s pretty much what happened.
frustrated, i took to twitter to vent, trying to figure out what my fucking problem is. in pink’s ‘behind the music’ special, she spoke about her refusal to dig deep into her life experiences and emotions & the superficial art she got as a result of it. maybe that’s my problem? maybe i’m not angry/sad/hurt/emotional enough to produce good art? how do i fix it? shave my head and move to cameroon? date a thug? do some drugs?
i got some great advice and encouragement from a lot of amazingly talented people, and their care and concern brought me to tears. outside, in the middle of a beautiful day, i couldn’t hold them back. partially because i was irritated, but also because i felt so unworthy. i barely feel fit to call myself a writer these days; to be complimented on my writing by people who are amazing at writing? i felt like a fraud.
i got back up to my apartment, thankful that i didn’t have to explain away my puffy eyes to anyone on the way up (“ugh, these allergies!”). as soon as the door closed behind me, i hit the cough and sobbed. wept. like, ugly cried. the gasping for air, grandmama-dont-make-me-go-get-a-switch hiccup crying. and i’m still crying, though not as dramatically, because i’m so fucking tired of this story. i’m tired of being here. and i always end up here, no matter how many blogs i start, no matter how many projects i launch, no matter how many crutches i collect, i am always here. always.
someone suggested just not writing for awhile, and i balked at the thought because 1 - i have to eat, and that extra money can help, and 2 - i already feel like i’ve wasted so much time. there’s a clock eternally ticking in my ears, screaming at me to make each second of life count, to make it mean something because death could very well be right around the corner (thanks, anxiety!). i’m afraid to put the ball down completely, because with the weariness in my bones, i very well may never pick it up again.
and then what would i do? i’m not good at anything else. rather, i’m not passionate about anything else. our ultimate goal in life is—at least mine is—to do what we love to do. this is it. this was it. maybe it’s time to do something different.
i thought this would help but i’m every bit as frustrated as i was before. i still don’t think i’ve said what i wanted to say the right way. but, this is all i have. i’m tired.
i’ll pick myself up and dust myself off again, im sure. i always do.
just sucks that i have to do it again.