No matter how hard I try, I just can’t do it. I just can’t put the words to the page. Maybe the problem is the pen, or the paper, or my nook where the work is supposed to be done. Or maybe, just maybe, the problem is me. Can you help? I just I can’t do. No matter how much I want to, I just can’t encourage the words to come.
Dear Can’t Write,
In my early years, the summers always seemed so hot: the air hanging heavy on my neck and shoulders like cotton candy. Back then was an era in my life when CD advertisements for late White Stripes, early-Raconteurs era alternative rock were adhesed to my ceiling. Being fifteen has a sort of way of skewing the perspective you have on your current moment. Somewhere, a piece of notebook paper with a quote from Kerouac and a brief note explaining why I had to run away was ready to be tacked to my bedroom door on a middle of the night exodus for California, or somewhere. I wanted to be like Kerouac, take flight across the Midwest and not stop until I had traded the heft of humidity for the weightlessness of the Pacific Ocean.
I never did run all the way away, nor did I really want to (full disclosure: I super love my parents and their patient support of my life as a writer) and why would I want to? Those days, I had so much time. Any misplaced discontentedness I invented as a weird multi-modal element of my own creative writing could have been energy saved for now that I am facing the crushing workload and deadlines of a PhD program in English. Back then I could have literally spent hours writing whatever I wanted instead of figuratively spending hours reading Immanuel Kant.
While I never strayed too much further than the driveway, I did occasionally ‘sneak out,’ stealing away into the quiet dark of our rarely traveled suburban road. We lived by woods, and in the shadows of an infinity of chinquapin and bur oak trees, chestnuts, and evergreens I sought a void to be filled with pages and pages of writing.
I would climb out my bedroom window, leap off the shallow roof, and creep across our front lawn like so many deer trying to sneak bites of my mother’s hostas without alerting our dogs. Under the yellow globe of a tired streetlight I would sit, legs crossed on the old concrete, notebook open and pen furiously writing. There was an older kid who lived across the street that would sometimes be out on his own act of rebellion, patch-covered jacket, spiked hair, Anti-Flag or Sex Pistols CDs playing in his Discman; often, he would smoke cigarettes while I read what I was writing. Other times he would just share the glow with me.
Now, just as much as then, I’m seeking my own private revolution. So strong is the urge to figuratively sneak out from the confines of the various lives we each live—school, work, planning a wedding, the endlessly disheartening political news cycle, traffic—and just fill a notebook. Literally fill a notebook. That’s a thing I used to do. Now I look out my office window, thinking about how I don’t have time to be enjoying this view, let alone not having time to fill a literal notebook with writing.
As a teacher of creative writing, I’m always telling my students to just write. We spend class time writing. Sometimes, they get into grooves and their heads bob up and down in rhythm with their pens or keyboards. Other times, I do not know what they are doing; these are the only times I have written this semester.
I know it is a hollow suggestion, advice I haven’t let myself indulge in, but I’ll offer it to you anyway, Can’t Write: find the glow of whatever your space is. Fill it with your body so that you may use your body to fill something with words. Just write. Just write. Just write. Don’t mistake mythologizing your process, or the process of your idols, such that you cannot write in your spaces. I did follow Kerouac to San Francisco, eventually, and then I followed myself back into the Midwest. It turns out the snow is a far greater muse than those literary giants. Now that I am living on my own, there’s no bedroom to sneak out from. But when I duck my planner’s rigid schedule, even for a moment to jot down a line or two, the time I find to write is just as exhilarating as the places I write.
And anyway, no matter what world is around you, the place where you’re writing is always the same: you, the pen, and the page. A phrase I often use to my students and myself: stop running, start writing.