Always Writing

September 26, 2011

Always Writing

If you’ve never read it, Tillie Olsen’s Silences describes those events in life that have kept writers from filling blank pages with words. Work needing to be done. The raising of children. Caring for a sick loved one. Poverty. And illness. And, when I began writing this, I thought I’d be writing about silence, my own these past several weeks. But no, I’m finding that I’m not writing about silence at all.

I’ve had a silence. At first, self-imposed. An entire month of not writing. August, it was. I wanted to see what it was like not to write, not to write anything. Not chunks of a book in progress. Not scribbles towards an essay. Not journal. Not a blog entry. Not anything. Welll, not not anything. I wrote “to do” lists like I’ve always done. I wrote a few lines now and then about books I read. I wrote a plan about what I’d do when I resumed writing – organize my book about writing, write its introduction, rewrite some of my essays; get to those final chapters for the book about my parents’ lives during World War II. Writing I was – am – eager to get back to.

I haven’t had many silences in my writing life. I remember writing the introduction to a collection of Irish women’s stories I co-edited while I recovered from an operation on my leg – a rather serious one. I remember writing with a sick child sitting on my lap. Those were the days of electric typewriters, and he vomited into it and destroyed it. Lucky for me I was renting it. Lucky for me, the salesman thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard: a fancy electric typewriter destroyed by the vomit of a sick child. And so he replaced it free, and I was off and running.

I wrote while my father was recovering from heart surgery. He was staying with us, and I took care of him, as I penned lines about him that wound up in my memoir Vertigo. I wrote the day my mother died; the day after my sister died. It seemed that nothing stopped me from writing.

But August has turned to September and I haven’t gotten to those promised projects. I have, I must confess, written much in my journal.

And why? A diagnosis of breast cancer. All the attendant doctor visits and tests that accompany such a diagnosis. A writing life put on hold, temporarily. At least that’s what I hope, though how temporary, I can’t say now, for surgery awaits me tomorrow.

Like every patient (how I hate that word)….Like every person awaiting surgery, I’ve been advised to get a good night’s sleep the night before; I’ve been assured that my surgeons (there will be four plus an anesthesiologist plus goodness knows how many nurses and assistants) will be getting a good night’s sleep. And they’ve suggested that I take a calming drug, and I have, though I don’t “do” drugs, never have, except for those necessary to recover from Lyme Disease, to help me with asthma. So hear I sit, at my desk, writing. Writing to all of you. Thanking you for being my audience. Promising that there will be more to come when I’m ready.

And who knows the shape this “Writing a Life” blog will take.

I don’t want to go through what’s been on my mind. Why I haven’t gotten to my desk. If you know – and I know you do know – some one like me whose gone through something like what I’ll be going through tomorrow, you don’t need to be told what you already know.

But for the first time in my life, all I’ve wanted to do was take walks, look at children playing, be with my family, talk to my students via email, read, take baths. And not write. At least not at my projects. But I have written a bit about what I’ve been going through which might, or might not, turn into a book about this experience.

Like most of us writers, getting through a hard time often entails experiencing it, and watching yourself experience it. This double vision – call it detachment if you will – has served me well in the past. Like you, I’ve tucked away conversations as I was having them; I’ve noted some incongruity when I’ve experienced it; I’ve talked to someone and noticed something in the background that I might use in my work. And that’s been happening to me too.

The truth is, that if you’re a writer, you’re writing even when you’re not writing. I told that to a writer friend once, a long time ago, when she was writing an enormous trilogy – she was on the second of the three when we talked. She was beating herself up because she hadn’t written in awhile. How could she have? Her writing mind needed a rest. It needed to just go blank for awhile so it could fill up with words once again. But even as I told her this, I didn’t quite believe it. At least not for myself. For I’d been able to write no matter what. And I believed nothing would stop me.

Arrogant. That’s what I was.

And so here I am in a brand new place wondering where my writing life will be a few weeks from now. (Throughout this week, I know, I’ll be flat on my back, healing, looking at movies, perhaps, funny ones, reading, maybe, sleeping a great deal, I hope.) And I hope to check in to let you know.

But this is as much about you as it is about me. There are times when life trumps art. For all of us. Even for the most steadfast. And this is one of those times for me. Though I have written this, and it has felt good, being at my desk, though now I’ll go back to bed, hoping to sleep the night the way I’m supposed to.


25 Responses to “Always Writing”

  1. Regina Tuma Says:

    Dear Louise,
    Thank you for this entry. Please know that it has made a difference for me–your voice is a guiding light. My thoughts to you and your family. But do know that I look forward to your next blog entry. You are not off the hook.

  2. cecile mines Says:

    Dear Louise,

    I am enjoying your blog and wish you all the best… I will be thinking of you tomorrow and look forward to hearing more from you…

    Cecile Mines

  3. Louise, coraggio.
    I send prayers and sisterhood of survival.

  4. Katherine Says:

    Dear Louise,
    Thank you so much for sharing this news with us. I have been thinking about you in the past weeks, as school started again, and wondering how your writing life was going. I am sending love and best wishes for your surgery and recovery – enjoy the days of movies and stories and family and juice pops and special food and drink.

  5. Anna Says:

    Dear Louise:

    Live. Just live your life. I hope you are just living right now and not even reading my comment. You’ve got too much else to do. I’m just typing it in because it makes me feel better to give you some support, whether or not you are aware of it.

    And isn’t it true about that double vision we are cursed/blessed with?

    Like the others, I will be with you in spirit on the day of your surgery. Thank you for letting us know.

  6. Cynthia Says:

    “Writing about not writing” I meant to say. And that smiley face is way bigger and more manic than I would like it to be….
    Ever the Mediocre Proofreader,

  7. memorycell Says:

    Dear Louise,

    Whenever you get to this, I am holding you in the light – yours is a voice I often hear in my own writing silences, and I hope whatever form your next weeks take that you hear the chorus of people – friends, students, family, readers — who love you, and that you also hear the peace in silence.

  8. Louise, I wanted to let you know that, while you have been writing your life, I’ve been reading it, here on your blog. And I wanted to stay thank you for taking the time and care to write to us, your readers. It’s such a gift to hear people’s stories, and yours are particularly thoughtful and illuminating for those of us living the writer’s life.

    I wish you strength and attention as your go through your treatment and recovery. Love, Alison

  9. Margaux Says:

    A beautiful piece of writing about not writing. My hopes for your speedy recovery. ~Margaux

  10. Kirie Says:

    That is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read here, and I love every one of your posts. There’s a grace to it, and even humor. I would send it to the New York Times op-ed, or Bellevue Literary Review. Or many other places. Have someone else be your submission agent while you’re recuperating. Your post has a message beyond our intimate sharings here. And yes, many may know what you’re going to go through, but no one else is going through it for you. Please know many are thinking about you, and looking forward to anything you feel like writing – with no pressure whatsoever. I love the idea of the walks, more time with kids. May all warm light shine upon you and within you.

  11. Rosalyn Will Says:

    Dear Louise,

    I wish you love and a quiet spirit surrounding you with the prayers and blessings of so many. Your taking off the month of August to just be was a good move.

    Yesterday, I had not yet read your blog. Unaware of your diagnosis, I sent you an email asking you to write an introduction to the anthology my memoir group is about to publish. At times such as this, the body works to mend, and the mind slows to a walk. You have listened to them.

    Be well again soon. Think about the walks you’ll take before the snow flies. Store up the words and let them come when you are ready.



  12. Valerie Chronis Bickett Says:

    Hello Louise. I teach a writing group of mostly women here in Cincinnati. Last year we used your Writing as a Way of Healing as a background text and many of us learn from your Writing a Life blog. I just finished reading Adultery (for the second time) and so you have been on my mind–the way you navigate this life. I wish you continued courage. Valerie

  13. karen Says:

    Ah, so the silence is explained. Heal well.

  14. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    Dear Louise,
    I was introduced to your blog through a memoir class. How lucky for me. I wish you a speedy recovery.

  15. Michael Frankovic Says:

    I have heard so many writers say they write at the very least 1,000 words a day or something to that effect. I never thought it was possible for me to do something like that and I think time spent not writing is important. For me, creativity runs out quickly and I always need to take a break.

    • writingalife Says:

      There are no “shoulds” here. Write 1000 words a day every day? I couldn’t do it. I think the important thing is to get to learn – and respect – our own rhythms. The only thing I suggest is keeping at it when we can.

  16. This blog was so inspiring. It is great to see you are so positive. There has been times when I would stop writing for days as well but to me it didn’t feel right. It has become part of my daily routine. When I write down my feelings or thoughts, its as if I am getting it off my chest. I feel much better afterwards. I know a few people like your friend who write so much that they end up needing a rest from it but I think that instead those people should just write whatever comes to their mind. Writing to me is so freeing and it has helped me a lot these past few years. It is interesting to see how different you felt when you weren’t writing.

  17. Kimberly Sital Says:

    Dear Louise,
    It is absolutely amazing how positive and strong you are. I definitely do not think that it is arrogant because writing is a such big part of your life. I never thought of not writing so your mind to go blank just to have it be filled up once again, that’s a nice positive spin on it.
    I am the opposite of you. I never write about anything that occurs in my life. Maybe mainly because I am new to memoir. However, it is very hard to concentrate and get the creative juices flowing. How does a person allow himself or herself to just write everyday, its rather difficult for me. Is it really possible for a person to generate new material everyday?

  18. Angelica Roman Says:

    Dear Louise,
    Whenever I read your blog it always surprises me how I can relate to so much of what you have written. I’ve found myself in a number of situations and conversations in which I’ll be thinking, “I need to remember this”. You are wonderful with words and I wish you the best. Never stop writing!

  19. Mary Ellen Says:

    Your words ring so true to me. The idea that writers never stop writing, even when unable to physically write, is an idea that really resonates. Since I was a child, I have always had an inner storytelling voice in my mind, as I moved through life, each experience was transformed as it was happening to a narrative within my own mind. My own nine year old daighter said to me months ago “Mommy, I have a constant narrative running through my head”, and I was floored, because she had found the words to describe what I had never really been able to. This left me both surprised at her ability to vocalize such a thing, and also happy to know that she had inherited, to some degree, something that I have always been secretly grateful for. Life has definitely silenced me repeatedly over the years, but looking back, it never silenced my mind. Thank you for your inspirational writing, and I look forward to reading more about your journey back to your unfinished projects.

    Mary Ellen

  20. Kimberly Bruining Says:

    I realize there are points in our life that interrupt our writing sessions. No matter how hard we try to be focused on our writing pieces, life finds a way to take over. There are trying times in our life that will prohibit us from writing; however, I have learned from your book Writing as a Way of Healing, that sometimes it is beneficial to write for a cathartic relief.

  21. Aly B. Says:

    A great entry about thoughts I can agree with. I’m also sure that others can definately agree with feeling the same way. I particilary enjoyed your style of writing in this blog and have come to appreciate how you to find the light at the end of the tunnel even in the toughest times. I find this to be a great trait and quite possiblly major contributor in as to why you are such a great, accomplished writer.

  22. sabrinall Says:

    I once read “if you are a writer, writing is your job. You report to it every single day, even if you don’t want to.” I have never read truer words. It is hard to sit down and just write for hours because I am a full time student working two jobs but I try. Some days I just write a sentence but I feel good when it is out of my system. Taking a rest is always good, but like you said, when you are a writer, you are always writing.

  23. Hazel Santana Says:

    Dear Louise,

    I’m glad you were able to take some time off your writing, and realize that it’s okay. Thank you for writing this for us, your readers.

    I love what you wrote when you said “If you’re a writer, you’re writing even when you’re not writing.” I completely agree. I am not a professional writer myself, but I do love to write and I have a vivid imagination. I’m constantly creating sentences and images in my mind that I end up writing later.

    The problem is the time. I know we must seperate a time to write and make it a prioroity, but as a college student, and a mother of 15-month-old tiwns, my time is so limited. All my writing ends up in school essays, book reports, exams, homework, term papers, etc. The little bits of time I write through out the week, I write sentences, thoughts, discoveries. And I do see this as beneficial.

    Writing is important, but when something like this happens to a person, there is nothing wrong with taking a break, leaving your mind blank, and enjoying simple things in life.

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