Can I write? I want to write. But I'm afraid to write

Family and friends will think it's about them!

Published June 24, 2005 7:35PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm not sure if this is suitable for your column, but I think of you as more of a writer than an advice columnist so I would like to hear your thoughts.

I don't really consider myself a writer; when I was a kid I read a lot of books. Soon I started seeing things differently, and would get the urge to write things down. Not just an urge, a persistent need. My head would buzz until I put an idea on paper. I kept a journal that I wrote in constantly, that is, until my mother read it and made fun of me in public over what I'd written. I was so humiliated that I threw the journal away and didn't write on my own again until I took a writing class in high school. My teacher encouraged me to apply for the writing program in university, and to my surprise, I was accepted. I didn't enjoy being around other writers that much, but eventually grew comfortable with reading my work out loud and accepting criticism.

After finishing my degree, I moved on to a regular job, no writing required. I kept writing journals filled with poems and stories, some things based on real events, some not. It created problems with boyfriends who would, without my knowledge, read them and believe that I was cheating, that I was suicidal, or any number of things that I wasn't. I was just exploring these ideas in writing, apparently convincingly so. I started throwing the books away after a little while, saving only the finished pieces that I had worked on publicly when I was in school. Even now that I live alone, I still hide my notebooks every night and periodically rip out pages and throw them away.

I've tried over and over again to squash the urge to write, but I can't do it anymore. I want to get it all out on paper, confront it, stare at it, mold it into something permanent. In school I was frequently told that I was a good writer, but that I was vague and holding back the messiness of real living. I've done plenty of real living, I am just afraid of putting it into words. I am afraid I am going to be mocked or accused of something, not by strangers, but by the people who are close to me.

I think I am finally at the point now where I am ready to move ahead and write what I need to write, but how do I go about dealing with mothers and lovers who think I am what I write?

Afraid to Write

Dear Afraid,

I usually try to stick to writing about relationships, but I suppose we could say by a slight stretch that this is really about your relationship with your self and your family, thereby allowing me to indulge in writing about writing.

I may be lucky or simple-minded or terribly self-involved, but it has always been clear to me that the writing comes first. I just feel this constant pull, and everything else comes second. I do not know how one duplicates that -- if one does not feel that constant pull, I do not know how one motivates oneself. But you apparently do feel that pull. You just find yourself unable to give in to it. Perhaps it has to do with a capacity to accept the pronouncements of the soul without question. If I were of a scientific mind, for instance, or a greater skeptic, I might question every edict from within; I might assign to it a source: This is just my wish to be famous; this is just my father's unfinished project; this is just a refusal to let go of fantasy; this is just a neurotic fixation. But I don't do that. I take the edict from within at face value. It says write, I write. It is the only way I can be at peace with myself for a few moments. It is I suppose in a way my religion -- in the way William James meant when he said, "Religion ... shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude."

But you ask a very particular and rather practical question to which I have responded with a reverie on my own good fortune in being too self-involved to worry much about the impediments of social and familial objections or misunderstandings. So I would offer a few further thoughts in a more practical vein:

1) You can't do anything about what people think about your work. They're mostly going to be wrong. They're going to criticize you and they're going to think it's about them. Anyone who thinks your work reflects badly on them is going to be mostly wrong, as your work is your own struggle to understand your own self. You won't be able to prove they're wrong; most people are not going to understand the project of the writer, the manifold whatevers of writing. They're just not going to get it and you have to live with that. It helps to believe that there is nothing shameful about trying to understand one's own self in public; it may be unsightly but it is useful work, and instructive to others.

2) You can't let anything get in the way of doing your work. If you are going to do it you must simply begin.

3) You do not have to write autobiographically. You may write about anything. If your fear about how the subject matter will be received is stopping you from writing, then write about something else. Write about nothing. It doesn't matter what you write about. You'll come around to your subject. It will always be there, by its absence or by its presence, whether you want it to be there or not; it will be the negative space you are circling, or the burning subject you name. It will be there. Just begin.

4) You say quite clearly that you don't think of yourself as a writer, and yet you want to write. A person who writes is a writer. It doesn't matter how you think of yourself. What matters is what you do. If you sit down (or stand up) and write every day, that's enough.

5) You don't have to show everything you write to everybody who might be offended by it. Chances are, much of what you write will be written for you alone anyway. Just write it. Write it because it's good for you. Write it because it takes the pressure off. Write it because it keeps you writing. Write it because there's nothing else to do. Write it. Just write it.

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