If you’re someone who writes from time to time, you already know, there are spaces between those times. I mean, there are times you are not writing. Occasionally, those times take up the most space in your day, week, month. And I, for one, feel the guilt. The guilt that I am not writing, not creating, not sending work out for publication.
Why the guilt though? Maybe I think if I am not currently writing, I can never/will never be considered “a writer.” I’ve heard that concept before. I’ve read it in articles and essays from well-known, respected, published writers. To be a writer, you write. When you stop writing, the moment you stop writing, you are no longer a writer. It’s as if, the moment you stop, your love for language, for sound, your fascination with the search for the perfect word must stop too. But is that true?
I had many phenomenal undergrad professors; I was lucky in that way. One such English professor, when faced with fifteen eighteen-to-twenty year olds, made a comment about writing and age that seems to have stuck with me all this time. She said, and I’m loosely paraphrasing as it was years ago, You will be better writers when you’re forty. You might not be great now, even good. And that’s okay. She was a better writer than us. Not a vain comment. Surely she was – she was the teacher, after all. It was an age comment. She’d lived longer. The longer you live, the more you see, the better your writing.
I’m not sure how I took this comment back then. Maybe a little foolishly insulted for my generation. How could she possibly know what we’d seen by eighteen? Maybe a little unsure if this seemed true, especially since we were in a fiction class. Maybe I didn’t think much of it at all, but it sat and stewed in the back of my mind. I’m not too far off twenty-eight now. It’s been only ten years, but oh, how right she was! I see it now. How much more I have to say because of how much more I’ve read and seen and done. Now, I’m not insulted; I’m not unsure. I’m impressed. And when my creative writing students look at me, certain that they will never be writers because their poetry doesn’t sound anything like Tony Hoagland or Sharon Olds, I tell them to keep writing. But, just as important, to keep living.
This past week, here at MSU, we had two visiting poets. One was Sarah McKinstry-Brown, who said something during her craft talk that I’ve had in my mind ever since. She said the poet Jaime Sabines once said or wrote, “Live, then write. In that order.” What a thought! And I was back in Professor Loomis’ class listening to her tell us to be forty. To keep experiencing and writing. To work those shit jobs and struggle through those breakups. And then, to write again. That we couldn’t control it, but that (thankfully!) we’d be so much better at this in twenty years.
One of my best-of-all-time teachers was my college dance instructor, Toni. She was tough, challenging, kind. I made a lot of close friends through dance. The closest, Megan, made a comment on Facebook sometime after our graduation. She said that she missed dance. I missed it too. And I wondered then, did this make us not “dancers” anymore, if we weren’t still choreographing for hours in a mirrored studio?
Toni replied, and again I paraphrase, You will always have dance. It’s in your soul. I think, dear Toni, that was the greatest thing you ever taught me. When I’m not dancing, when I’m not writing, I’m still moving, living, taking in the world. We live first, then write. We age and we see the world in new ways. Then, we write. No, those spaces, those breaks, despite my lingering guilt, are nothing to worry over. Those spaces don’t make us less writer-ly. Those spaces are where we live. I’d argue, you can never/will never be “a writer” without them.
-Poetry Editor, Debbie Ernie
-Poetry Editor, Debbie Ernie