During a moment of discouragement this morning—others writers have better focus than me, more time to read great literature, no three-year-old pulling love and attention away from the page—I flashed back to college, to what I now realize is a seminal moment in my development as a writer. The world looked bleak (Was it my miserable relationship with my boyfriend? The overwhelming stress of senior year? The overcooked green beans in the cafeteria?); I complained about everying in great detail to my friend Heather, a brilliant mathematician. She finally interrupted me. “Elizabeth, are you writing?”
No, I wasn’t.
I knew immediately Heather saw an equation I hadn’t: Elizabeth minus writing equals misery. Solitude, a pen and paper were key to my mental health. From that moment forth writing has been an essential activity, saving me thousands in therapy bills. (Thank you, Heather.) Not that writing solves all my problems, but it does return me to a place where I can hear what I’m thinking and feeling and thus address my problems sanely. It takes the scattered pieces inside me and binds them up.
Twenty-two years and three published books later, I sometimes forget this basic function of writing: To return me to myself. The distractions are different today; parenthood, sure, but also competition in the literary world, the terrible demands of social media, a career built on creative work that nonetheless seems feeble and unsteady. Were Heather to ask me her question now I would answer, blithely, yes, and my answer would be a tiny bit dishonest. I’m not always faithful to that fundamental function of writing. I sometimes forget to write to become more myself. And when that happens, I lose my moorings.
I believe—in fact, I know—that writing to become more me is the groundwork of every successful piece I’ve put into the world. When I write to put my internal pieces together, I’m also rearranging external pieces and creating a whole beyond myself. This isn’t a distraction from my literary ambitions but rather the essential first step. It’s also the second and fifth and final steps, only it gets harder and harder to remember.
But now I can conjure up Heather. She’ll squint her eyes at me and demand daily, “Are you writing?”