This article was written by Noelle Sterne.
At my usual Friday table in the mall Starbucks, writing supplies spread out and tall cardboard ambrosia cooling at my elbow, I look around. In the atrium café, people sit, sipped, stare at passersby, look back at me. A grandmother corrals her kidlets, two stylish females exchange gossip, a young couple prop bulging shopping bags against their knees and whisper over their whipped toppings. A man alone, munching on mixed nuts, reads a foreign newspaper, and a very senior woman rummages in her oversized handbag.
Sighing and Wishing
I sigh, glanced down at my notes, up again, and around the atrium. Pull out my purse notebook and quiet the rattling in my head by adding to the perennial errand list. Put the notebook away and sweep the area again. The foreign man left his newspaper on the nearby table, but I resist reaching for it. Almost get up to go drool over the vampy shoes in the shop window behind me but stop myself. I sigh again and eye my clipboard with something close to resentment. And let myself be drawn back to the customers and mall shoppers.
I just don’t want to write.
What if the Phoenicians hadn’t invented the alphabet? What if the Sumerians hadn’t whittled their cuneiform writing sticks, ancestors of our Bics and Parkers? What if Gutenberg had kept his wine press pressing grapes rather than spewing printed pages? What if my parents hadn’t subscribed to The Saturday Review and The New Yorker?
Then, ah then, I wouldn’t have to write. Just think. I could be free to “enjoy” life, the American unworking dream: visit the mall daily, eat out incessantly, read magazines and romance novels, watch every primetime TV show every night of the week. I could take long walks, snooze in the sun, chuckle at children playing in the park, even stop and talk to their mothers. I could take in the latest movies, indulge in long, giggly dinners with friends, or sign up for a course in Greek culture. I could go everywhere without a notebook.
And more. I wouldn’t have to take incessant notes that interrupted every activity, or wake at 3:00 am with brain dictating brilliant dialogue that I knew would vanish at first light if I didn’t get it down. During social occasions, I wouldn’t have to excuse myself frequently to run to the bathroom, others staring at me like my bladder had quit, to surreptitiously capture the worst cliché I’d heard in two years. Watching movies or TV, I wouldn’t have to reflexively trumpet every plot flaw and, to my husband’s perpetual annoyance, announce the final outcome before the second commercial.
I’d use my computer only to email crosscountry friends pictures of the sunsets from my balcony. Or check out new acquaintances on Facebook and see what they were twitting. On the way to boot up, I wouldn’t have to trip over the huge stack of embryonic writing projects whose births alone will take me 250 years.
Ah, I wouldn’t have to write.
Sitting at my mall table, frozen before my clipboard, I think of, and empathize with, the admission of a novelist in Jean Rosenbaum and Veryl Rosenbaum’s The Writer’s Survival Guide:
Occasionally I envy normal people. . . . They never have to disappear during a party. I lack the social graces to explain my actions as I rush away to capture a certain phrase on paper before it falls through my memory sieve.
His wife, he confided, “dreams out loud of a serene life married to an easygoing, regular guy, content to watch television without yelling at the announcer or blurting comical dialogue for the actors.”
But, maybe like you, I find I can’t just not write. I’m not talking about a block that locks your brain and fingers like a strait jacket. Or an illness or legitimate depression at losing someone dear, although writing about it can prove great catharsis and excellent work, as Joan Didion proved in The Year of Magical Thinking, her acclaimed book about surviving and coping with the sudden death of her husband of forty years.
I’m talking about stopping in the regular middle of life, with only the usual traumas to deal with—refrigerators too often emptying, laundry too often mounting, car too often failing, and unexpected astronomic bills too often shocking. At these times, have you ever almost dared yourself—and your life—not to write, rebelling like a tween at the insistent inner parent who shoots you that look decreeing you must write, if not daily at least regularly?
Once in a while, I’ve tried not writing. Sorry to say, it solves nothing. I’ve discovered and rediscovered, as that novelist said, I’m not one of those “normal” people who can be content with anything less than constant creativity, from attempted to actualized.
The Threat and the Promise
Facing my nature, despite fantasies of “normality,” probably comes from an admonition that has long haunted and spurred me. It’s Jesus’ words in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, reproduced by scholar Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (p. 257, Verse 70):
If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not [bring forth] that within you, what you do not have within you [will] destroy you.
The lesson here is this: When we admit and accept who we really are, allow and discipline ourselves to write, the doing itself will “save” us. But when we deny and stifle our writing drive by convincing ourselves we shouldn’t have it, don’t need it, and don’t want it, and so deprive ourselves of even a little writing time, we suffer the unavoidable repercussions.
We feel guilty because we’re rejecting our gift, and we harm ourselves by slowly killing our creative drive. The drive, bottled-up, convolutes, grows ugly, and finds other outlets—we become depressed, get sick, overeat, overspend, oversleep, overTV, overWeb, and snap at everyone within mouthshot.
Most of us can probably tolerate a day to a week “off” from writing. We may even return refreshed. But I see, ruefully, that to turn our figurative backs and literal productions on writing won’t give us happiness, peace, or minimal contentment. And just as dire, our self-denial will probably sour other, more ordinary, pleasures.
Writing Our Music
The warning in Thomas isn’t the only one that reminds me of the crucial sacredness of surrendering to our gifts. In an NPR radio interview, the magnificent American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein made an unwittingly sad and cautionary statement the summer before he died. He said, “There’s so much music I still have to write.”
Later, I read inspirational teacher Wayne Dyer’s words in Dr. Wayne Dyer’s 10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace about our “music.” Directed to all of us, the second secret, an often-quoted dictum, is this:
Don’t die with your music still in you.
Have you felt the shaking truth of this advice? It’s at the source of my petulant rejections of writing and finally, again, returning.
What’s the solution to wishing not to write? For me, it’s heeding such counsel, accepting our need to produce, and recognizing we’re not like “normal” people. Corollary to Dyer, my sane self centers again with George Bernard Shaw’s words in Man and Superman:
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap . . . .
Yes, I want to be thoroughly written out by the end. The only way is to yield to the drive and desire and rejoice in it. Sure, go out occasionally with friends for lunch, or sit in a first-run movie or take a course. But come back, always come home to our calling.
Now, at my Friday table in the mall Starbucks, I turn from the outer scene and let my eyes go where they want to—my clipboard. No need for sighs, anger, or shopper-watching. I spread out my notes, take a sip of divine latté, and pick up my pen.
Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces of fiction and nonfiction in print and online venues. Her column in Coffeehouse for Writers is titled “Bloom Where You’re Writing.” With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations. Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books) uses examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings.