Dear Fellow Writer,
My life is paused right now. It stutters like a record in a too-worn groove. Morning comes and then night. I’m able to colour in the basics of my day. I go to work. I write my freelance articles. I work out. I don’t have the capacity for much else. I don’t write.
I’ll do it tomorrow, I tell myself as I lie on my couch falling asleep at 9:00, overwhelmed with fatigue and brain fog from my disability. Or, alternatively, overwhelmed by grief over the recent death of my grandfather. Tomorrow. It becomes my mantra.
I should belt it out every night like I’m an orphan in a musical.
Only I don’t have Annie’s optimism. I think instead that life is finite. Time is zero sum. That the days when I don’t write are hollow days where I just ape the motions of living. That these days don’t really matter. And I wonder who I am when I’m not writing. And I wonder if I will ever have the physical capacity to translate all my ideas into words. And I think about my days running out beneath me like land under a cartoon coyote and that I will suddenly find my legs moving in midair – having run right off a cliff. Time keeps ticking, I tell myself – it doesn’t pause for grief or disability. It doesn’t give anyone a ‘time out’ to catch their breath.
And the last few months have felt like I was barely breathing. Too many days when I was bent by my body. Too many days when I wanted to write or do something else but my body wouldn’t cooperate or I was overtaken by a sudden unexpected wave of grief. Fatigue and brain fog have made a rhythm of my days, now. So have tears.
When we are out in the muck of a hard time, it is difficult to see past it. The days string together and you expect things to continue just as they are now into the future. It’s like when you’re sick with the flu and you can barely remember a time when you weren’t sick or imagine one when you won’t be sick again. I am there now. I am afraid now of a future composed solely of illness and more illness. I am unsure now how to get myself back to my writing as days slips past and I keep saying my one persistent prayer: tomorrow.
So, I am writing this letter to you. I am writing this letter to myself. I am thinking back to my own words. That time when I told you in an essay on this site that life had seasons. That writing comes when it’s ready. That it’s okay to have days, and weeks, and months, and years when you cannot write. I am trying not to hate the person who wrote those words – who was in midst of a highly productive period at the time.
And I can tell myself that this is not my season to write. I can form the thought, speak the words, even realize intellectually that this not-writing period isn’t permanent. Most of us don’t spend the rest of our days in bed with the flu, after all. Things usually change – or we find ways to get more done somehow. I can tell myself this over and over again. But I’m still angry about it. I’m still frustrated. I’m still desperate for things to be different. I’m still afraid that they never will be.
I have always struggled to sit in the still moments of life. In the painful ones. In the ones where my body tells me no so loudly that I can’t ignore it. I feel like a dog being put in a kennel or a child being disciplined. In these moments, I can see what I want but I can’t taste it.
And I want to tell whomever is in charge that I have spent too much time in the pauses in life. Too much time healing from this or that injury. Too much time trying to get back to a stable place where I can write. It isn’t fair, I want to yell.
All I want to do is just get my novel out the door and into the hands of others. I JUST need to read through it one last time and copyedit it. That’s all. But that stretches before me like the most impossible of tasks. My life is stalled yet again. The stopwatch clocks more time. My novel will never be done. Why did I think calling it Unfinished was a good idea, again?
It’s a cosmic joke. On me.
And when I am not decrying my situation, I’m thinking about how privileged I am compared to others – despite these struggles. I’m wondering what right I have to complain. And I do what I can to help others with the energy that I have. But so much of my life right now is painful and hard and I’m sick of it being so. And while I struggle towards the light and every day I see a little more of it, it’s not easy. I’m tired.
And I suspect you are too. I suspect so many of us are. And I know we don’t talk about it. We are magpies who build nests with only shiny stories. Happy ones. The ones that would fit well in the pages of the writer’s edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul. Heartwarming. Nourishing. Pat.
They’re stories where we lie to ourselves and each other about what it’s really like. About how it feels. To be in the hard times. To be in the not-writing times. Because we write those stories after we’ve left the hard times. When they’re just a small detail in our rearview mirrors – what interesting, colourful backstories on our road to success! Grist for a publicist trying to market our books!
We don’t often talk about these non-writing times while we’re going through them and how they feel. The unending quality of them. The way they pull us down. The way they can make us forget who we are. The way they take so long to clear.
We talk about writer’s blocks – as though once you get through some metaphysical barrier it’s smooth sailing beyond. When really some blocks are our bodies or lives just refusing to yield to us. And the way to being unblocked isn’t smooth or straight – but iterative and non-linear. A day and then another of writing and then a long stretch of more not-writing time. It’s the uncertainty that breaks you. The never knowing when it will be over. If it will be over.
This is not to say it’s all bad. There are things I can sense in me already firming up. Essays I might someday have the capacity to write. Insights that are sharpening like knives against the stone of this not-writing time. I can see all the ways this struggle might not be entirely Sisyphean. But these ideas flirt with me, tease me -- knowing I can’t follow through.
I will not tell you to be hopeful. I will not try to inspire you. I will not force optimism on you like some convert trying to convince you to believe. I will tell us both only to breathe. To pause. To be patient (that terrible, impossible thing). I will offer you this letter – this part of me -- to stand with you in the uncertainty and pain and struggle that is your own moment of not-writing.
And I will hold myself in this place of grief and pain and effort and tiredness and disability. I will sit with myself. Minute after minute. Day after day. I will do all the things that support my health. I will work through the stages of my grief. I will prepare myself to write.
I will keep telling myself tomorrow -- until someday I actually believe it.
A. H. Reaume
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
A.H. Reaume is a Vancouver-based fiction writer who reads too much and is currently in too many book clubs (four in total). Reaume has a background in feminist activism and an M.A. in Canadian Literature from UBC. She's been published in the Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail, USAToday.com, and Time.com and is currently trying to finish her first novel.