The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life: On Not Writing

It seems strange now, as a person who had always processed the world through writing, to have been without words during this national trauma.
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If you're trying fit writing into your life, and if you're reading this you probably are, unless you are independently wealthy and have your own domestic staff, there will times when you won't be able to do it. Times when you'll need to be kind to yourself and let it go -- for a little while anyway. Times like after you've welcomed a child into your home--whether through birth or adoption (again, I'm not just talking about mothers here) -- or when you're dealing with a serious crisis at work or with your family. These are just examples -- only you'll know when to give yourself a break and when you need to keep the writing going to process what's going on. I didn't get as much writing done when my children were small; before they started preschool. This was mostly because my husband and I were both exhausted and just trying to get through the day. But it was also because children are only young once and we didn't want to miss it. It's a simple fact: you don't get those years back.

It's not that I didn't write at all. That was never an option. I teach at a university where, like most, "publish don't perish" rules and I wasn't tenured until my youngest was four. But if my productivity was a graph, you would definitely see an uptick when that child started preschool and another when he started kindergarten. Now that he's in middle school, with friends and school and a life quite distinct from mine (in other words, if I'm really lucky he'll let me sit on the same sofa with him while he watches Bones) I get all kinds of writing done. I'm a veritable writing machine.

Writer's block is another reason why a writer might not write; although there are lots of ways to get around that, like the ones I mentioned in this post. Thankfully I've only really suffered writer's block a few times in my life, usually when something else traumatic was going on, like right after 9/11. My uncle and godfather, John Pettei, a banker, worked in Tower One. By some miracle, he was late to work that day -- the closest he got was a bus in the Bowery as the second plane was hitting. Still, the time between when I found out about the attack and when I learned he had survived, though mercifully brief, introduced a new kind of agony to my emotional repertoire that I never wish to experience again. On top of that, my entire extended family -- mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins -- lived in New York, specifically Queens and Long Island. For the first few weeks it was difficult to even get phone calls through. To say I was frantic with worry would be an understatement. If you were alive during that time, you remember. We all were.

For while after that day, I don't know, maybe six months, the words simply would not come. There didn't seem to be any point. Bin Laden and the bespectacled al-Zawahiri seemed to spend the entire twenty-four hour news cycle assuring us we hadn't seen anything yet. Then the anthrax attacks hit; an seven-month-old baby stricken at ABC News. Every day there was a new scare about something, an urgent alert requiring yet another gathering of ashen national leaders at the podium of what seemed to be an endless march of press conferences which failed conspicuously each time to conceal the obvious: nobody knew what the hell was going on.

I spent a lot of time back then praying, fervently, that my sons, then five and one, would even have a future. Silently I worried that I had failed them, made them soft. What good would the ability to decode the pawprints on a Blues Clues episode do them if the kind of annihilation al Qaeda promised actually came to pass? What would we do if we ran out of Pull-Ups while we sheltered in place? Where could I score some Cipro?

I remember setting small goals: If we can just make it through Christmas without another attack. If we can just make it to the family reunion in July.

It seems strange now, as a person who had always processed the world through writing, to have been without words during this national trauma. But eventually I started to feel that old restlessness again, eventually I started to feel that familiar hand at my back, gently urging me to my desk. And I learned something. If I followed my own instincts and trusted myself, the words would return. Unfortunately, there are times in your life when a crisis arrives that requires every ounce of emotional strength you possess. For some people making art is the only way to deal with a crisis like this; for others there is simply nothing left with which to create. If you're in the latter group, this might be a good time to do some revision or editing, something that helps you stay in the game until you can muster the strength to get back to work. Otherwise, you're just going have to hold that leaden burlap sack in your arms until someone comes along who can carry it for a little while, or until you can find someplace to put it down, or until, slowly, imperceptibly at first, it begins to lighten, as I know, as I promise, it will. One day your hands will be free to make art again.

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