Writer in Residence

Always A Blank Page Waiting

By Zalika Reid-Benta


I remember the first time I heard a writer admit that she hated writing. It was 2011, on a panel during the Summer Writing School facilitated by the Creative Writing program at UofT’s School of Continuing Studies. Everyone else on the panel spoke about how they could essentially vomit onto the page all these words and ideas, edit the mess they’d made, and voila, a draft.  This writer was the last person to speak and when she was given the microphone she said, with a little laugh, “I actually hate writing.”

The entire auditorium erupted into cheers and a smile slowly overcame my face as I thought, Wow, you can actually say that?

“I hate writing, I just can’t stop,” she clarified.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with writing because when I find my groove, when I’m in that stride and get to that place where it feels like I’m watching a movie as I write,  there’s no better feeling in the world, there’s nothing more enjoyable, and I love every second of it. However, more times than not, I struggle with being unable to get to that place. Sometimes it’s because I really don’t know what to write, other times it’s because I know exactly where I want my storyline to go, what I want my characters to do, but I just can’t get myself to put it on the page. That’s when I hate writing because there’s nothing more frustrating, nothing more maddening than writer’s block except for the fact that walking away from writing simply isn’t an option. I’ve tried, it didn’t work. There are times when hating writing makes me feel guilty but then I think of that panel and the applause that welcomed those four words and I feel much less like an imposter.

I also remember when I had the privilege to introduce Jamaica Kincaid at Columbia’s Creative Writing Lecture Series in 2014. When the Q&A portion of her talk came around, someone in the audience asked her how she chose certain words to convey certain meanings and what the thought process behind her writing style was, to which she simply replied, “I liked the way the word sounded.”

Again, I felt understood as a writer. I felt a certain validation at the fact that someone as established as Jamaica Kincaid chose words based on feeling and instinct and didn’t have this entire algorithm to her stylistic decisions like I’d heard from many authors before her.

Lately, I’ve been asked what my “process” is when it comes to writing, which includes questions such as, how I came up with certain stories. All I’ve really been able to say is that, “It felt right” or “it just came to me”. The most I can say is that it usually starts with dialogue. For the story “Drunk” I knew I wanted to write an exchange between Kara and her white classmates to show the casual anti-blackness she’d experience in a certain group but I didn’t know that the actual story “Drunk” would come from that desire. I’m 100% certain that there were wheels turning in my subconscious, that there are a multitude of reasons and explanations for how I wrote the stories I did but for the most part, I don’t really know them, I just felt my way through.

It’s the same with my actual writing process.

Some writers I know work on multiple projects at once so that when they’ve hit a slump with one manuscript, they can move to the other, or they can move to a completely different art form to keep their creative flow going. Others force themselves to write everyday even if no good material comes out of it, even if they want to be doing literally anything else. Some writers give themselves structure, allotting a time as their “writing time”, turning off their wifi, secluding themselves in a room with no TV.

Me? I do none of those things. I write when I feel like it and when I don’t, I don’t even try. I do the opposite of all those famous quotes and wait for passion to strike, wait for my muse to come — it’s just not as ethereal or romantic as it sounds. When I don’t feel like writing, maybe I’ll reread what I’ve already written, change a word here, move a comma there; maybe I’ll think about what I want to write, mull it over in my head over and over again; and maybe I’ll watch what I consider to be an excellent movie or TV show in an effort to trigger inspiration, but I don’t chain my muse to the desk so to speak. I don’t try to force myself to get back in stride, to find that place that I love so much because I’ve found the more I try to force it, the farther away that headspace gets.

I know from experience that learning that other authors share your feelings, fears, and hangups about writing can be helpful and healthy for your actual writing, so I’m not sure who’s reading this or who needs to see that it’s OK to not have a particularly detailed or organized writing plan, it’s OK to be instinctive with your style, it’s OK to sometimes (or maybe all the time) hate writing, but you’re not alone.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Zalika Reid-Benta is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared on CBC Books, in TOK: Writing the New Toronto, and in Apogee Journal. In 2011, George Elliott Clarke recommended her as a “Writer to Watch.” She received an M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University in 2014 and is an alumnus of the 2017 Banff Writing Studio. She completed a double major in English Literature and Cinema and a minor in Caribbean Studies at University of Toronto’s Victoria College. She also studied Creative Writing at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. She is currently working on a young-adult fantasy novel drawing inspiration from Jamaican folklore and Akan spirituality.