Friday, June 28, 2024

At a loss for coherent words: How I almost quit writing...for good.

I shapeshifted into every type of writer until I couldn't write no mo'.

I have so much to say but nothing to say at all. 

Or maybe I can’t fully articulate what it is that’s really on my mind, at least not coherently.

Some days I feel I have way too much mental clutter that I need to parse and piece thoughts back together into their respective stories. It’s almost like one of those pros and cons lists where this idea goes here, that idea goes there, yet in my case, they remain fragmented. It explains why I’ve written off and on – mainly off – for nearly a decade.

I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment that I lost all audacity or when my writing became less ease and more struggle. What I recall is publishing several fairly successful personal essays beginning with one or two for a then-popular mainstream platform. But what that site really wanted from its greenest writers was a page full of self-deprecating pieces disguised as empowerment. Admittedly I fell for the ruse because I desperately wanted the bylines – because I needed to prove to those around me that I was indeed a bona fide writer and that I could succeed as one, too – and the meager pay. And if that wasn’t enough, we were required to read the comments and actually engage with the cruelty and judgment that readers often posted in response to the very personal things we wrote. 

I was kinda relieved when another platform offered me a daily writer opportunity, where the focus was shifted from me to news and entertainment. But I soon found myself stumbling down Lipstick Alley and perusing other sites to aggregate and pen sometimes 13 pieces per day. 13! Was this break-neck pace even normal? I was hustling from dawn to midnight trying to gain some kind of flow and at least the same amount of traction as my very first essays. I wanted that balance but I couldn’t quite grasp how to make daily writing my own or make it sound like me. I couldn’t make it connect. In retrospect, I understand that hard news isn’t the same as narrative nonfiction but back then I gradually grew resentful of submitting stories like I was on some assembly line or as if I was pushing out a series of tweets. Eventually I grew to hate writing altogether.

It’s not a truth I care to admit because some readers could extract the latter and assume I’m a has-been who is deadline-averse and has abandoned writing forever. It’s also a fact that I didn’t completely come to terms with why I couldn’t put words on screen until recently. I had an Oprah aha! moment while I was doing something that I do nearly every other morning: I was frying an egg.

I’m particular about my food. I also love food. I take great precision when I prepare it and I take my time when I eat it. Some may say I eat slowly but I say I savor it.

This particular morning I wanted a little more than my usual over-medium egg. Mind you, this was not at all innovative, nothing that will attract bon appétit or get a nod from James Beard, but more what’s explosive to my own taste buds. Sometimes I just want some capers, some onions, a thin slice of dill + vodka cold-smoked salmon and/or a handful of tender baby spinach leaves. I did a quick sauté of the veggies and since I hate to break my yolk before I stick a fork in it to eat it, I gingerly placed it atop my spinach medley, oblivious to any eyes on me until someone mentioned how much care I put into my food.

“I keep telling you, you should open a restaurant,” a relative said.

I explained how cooking is an intimate experience reserved for just me and my loved ones.* 

Furthermore, small portions of a recipe or dish – say for four to six people – are manageable but when I start to cook for crowds, multiplying ingredients and taking shortcuts to make things a bit easier, I begin to mess up. My food is no longer cooked with love; it’s seasoned with angst and frustration. To put it simply, it just ain’t good. 

Besides, I have boundaries. Normally, you ain’t gonna be sitting in the kitchen watching me closely, rushing me, asking me questions, suggesting steps and such when I didn’t ask. 

I have a process, too. When prep is involved, my mise en place is set up and complete hours before I turn on a stove. I can’t mince and measure or muddle, shake and stir as I go. And anyone thinking I’m going to whip up a fancy meal mere minutes after returning from the grocery store? Nah, uh. I move at a specific pace. My cooking is neither collaborative, rushed nor on display. My time in the kitchen is sacred.

And that’s when it hit me.

I wondered why I didn’t have similar stipulations when it came to my writing. Why did I not protect my craft with the same fervor? Why did I begrudgingly force myself to shape-shift into the type of writer everyone else wanted or needed me to be in that moment? Why didn’t I actively pursue the style of writing that I love, one that’s not just personal but also meaningful and useful, one that feels most natural for me?

Like preparing a dish, my writing has an actual process to become something I’m proud of. I rarely sit and write (or type) from beginning to end. I can’t. I have to ruminate over my words while I do idle things. I “write” while I stroll to the mailbox, season steak, listen to rain or fold dreaded laundry. I then transfer those ideas long-hand, mostly as full sentences, to a notebook and at some point I make a list of bulleted points that I also want to include, checking each one – or completely crossing it off altogether – as I type and mold my story, which becomes its own lil process. At this stage, I write a little bit then get up, write a little more then get up, sleep on it, revise a little bit, and so forth. I love moving, sliding, weaving and fitting sentences together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

I simply can’t write linearly or on-demand. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s exhausting.

I used to think something was inherently wrong with me, though. I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t crank out a full story in one or two hours or sitting without multiple breaks. Years ago, I enrolled in a journalism course where I discovered I was an INFJ through the Myers-Briggs personality test that the instructor had us take. Her intent was to use our personality types to point out our potential writing styles as well as strengths and weaknesses. I remember her telling me that I’d probably do better as a feature writer rather than a hard news reporter. Sure enough, I never finished news assignments during class. I’d always have to take them home and bring them to the following class.

But one thing to note is you ain’t gonna tell me what I possibly can’t do. Now I’m definitely gonna try it anyway. And I’m going to keep trying it even if it’s obvious that this ain’t it, even if all my attempts only prove that you were right all along. Because, really, how hard is it to write a short article? I’ve always been a fast learner. I know the who, what, when, where and the why and how, too! I can follow directions.

I can also admit that she was, well, right all along.

For the most part, I always felt my jam would be a combination of exploration and discovery, memoir, followed by fictional narratives, after toying with a few short stories in a creative writing course that I enrolled in around the same time I took the journalism class. As someone who’s introspective (and introverted!) who craves depth yet lacks trust and keeps a lot inside, I find writing to be a form of catharsis. But a huge part of me felt there wasn’t a safe and stable home for my personal stories, especially after what I experienced at that very first gig. Besides, those weren’t the types of opportunities sliding into my inbox. Then I figured there was only so much I could say about myself, anyway, which I realize is false because each of us is full of experiences and lessons that others can receive and apply to their own lives. We grow wiser and learn a lot about ourselves and others through the stories we tell.

It wasn’t as if anyone was asking me to share commentary at least on things I deemed important or meaningful or substantial, either. Or folks would tap me to write their letters of complaint or grants and cover letters and resumes. Never mind that I can’t even write my own cover letter and resume! Perhaps true writers, as I often hear, can write anything but I ain’t one of those artists.

Admittedly I did begin to doubt my talent. I began to wonder if that’s all others saw in me. This lil writing thing on the side but something else overall. Being an essayist or memoirist or novelist or screenwriter was a stretch (or ridiculous?) for this lil country girl with a finance degree. Maybe some folks really did think I was just quite literally playing on the computer. I began to feel like a fake writer. A fraud. A pretender. A writer who isn’t a writer for real-for real because she hasn’t drafted anything lately except form letters and templates. A writer who reads way more than she writes but that’s because I understood that reading plays a huge part in cultivating my craft and supporting my words even if no one else gets it. Perhaps something will click one day.

Fortunately there remained that teeny, tiny part of me that couldn’t let it go completely. I still envisioned coveted bylines and book and film deals. And community. There’s something special about seeing someone and being seen in return. Magical en masse. I flashbacked to the time I had moved back to my rural hometown and I regaled my DC-area friends with my shenanigans via email. 

“I love the way you write,” one often replied before she asked for more.

So late last fall I resumed that activity, emailing a friend/former colleague – an acclaimed author, columnist and editor – who’s since moved to the Richmond area** plus another friend – also a writer – whom I left behind in the Atlanta area.

“You’re such a storyteller, Tee!” my Atlanta homie wrote back. “I can’t wait [‘til] you write your screenplay!” And then she followed it with “Are you still writing your blogs?!”

The book that helped me get my writing mojo back.

The crickets chirped on my end. They’ve been sounding since December 2023 when I left her email on read. I had long abandoned my blog by then. I didn’t know what to do with it. I was still teetering between posting content as samples for the writer life for which I knew and had mad receipts and the one I wanted but had no built-in audience. Like who wants to write into the abyss or for stupid trolls!*** I don’t tell her any of this, not even
Yass, sis, I’m relaunching this blog next month! because I’ve already said that many times now since the start of the pandemic. Not only am I a pretender, but a liar, too. If I started, I needed to remain consistent because she and my Richmond friend would surely hold me accountable. I must also confess that I’ve avoided him and his questions about my progress, too, but I needed to be confident and sure. I needed to figure this shit out. On my own. 

Another thing about me is that I’m an observer and I’m curious. Never nosy, though. Okay a little bit. But I’m a perpetual learner. I don’t want to be one of those seasoned adults who’s hard-set in their ways and refuses to change. I want to forever evolve, if necessary, so I decided to delve a bit more into the INFJ personality. Dig into what that really means. How can I use this tidbit to my advantage? I had already bought The INFJ Revolution by Lauren Sapata before discovering that she also wrote The INFJ Writer: Cracking the Creative Genius of the World’s Rarest Type. So I bought that, too. The author-writer coach mentions how INFJ’s have “the potential to be a phenomenal memoir writer,” which, I’m not going to lie, validated what I had been feeling deep down all this time but what really piqued my interest is the part on how we write best:  

…I’ve found that one of the best ways for INFJs to go about writing a memoir is to use [the] mosaic method. This means you [have] to write all the pieces down first, and then stitch them together later, like a big quilt. I do understand that most writers prefer to write in chronological order if at all possible, and there’s good reason for this. It makes things easier in the editing stage. But writing according to a linear plan can block INFJs and other sensitive intuitives. INFJs receive a constant stream of information from their introverted intuition, and this introverted intuition never stops trying to go inward to put the pattern together.

I needed this confirmation that my writing practice isn’t chaotic or erratic or that I’m not attempting something that’s way out of my league. It gave me that little spark, a simmer, a burn, to want to put myself back out there because there’s nothing else I can envision myself doing for the next 50 or so years with meaning and joy. I feel like I can begin to slowly release the 672,438 words zipping through my head with a bit more ease now. But I just need to be smart and strategic about who I would entrust with something so intimate and delicate this time.

*I did a food-writing internship about 10 years ago but I’m glad that didn’t progress into a career because I kinda like keeping food as a hobby. I think that’s because that particular role required me to constantly be “on” whenever I ate out. I don’t want to eat to conjure up adjectives to describe my meals; I want to eat and simply enjoy it.

**I mention this so that they can identify themselves and know that I didn’t ignore them out of cruelty.

***I know, I know! I should concern myself less about readership and allow it to grow organically. But my ego wants to play catch-up. I feel like I lost 10 years. Where would I be today had I kept going?

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