Faye Rapoport DesPres

The writing quandary: what's left to say?

It’s tough to find something interesting to say about the writing life on a regular basis. Often the days and the weeks go by without anything of literary merit to discuss; life is life, the days involve the usual struggles and ups and downs, and those ups and downs might not be related to writing. The “writing life” has been taken apart, examined, and put back together by so many writers who have explored almost every aspect of the vocation – where is the best place to write, when is the best time to write, should you write every day, should you free write, should you write by hand or with a computer, should you meditate before you write, how many drafts of a given piece should you expect to produce, should you get an MFA, should you get an agent, should you self-publish – the list goes on and on. In addition to blogs and books on the subject there are classes and lectures and seminars.

Sometimes I wonder if I have anything of value to add. My success as a writer is relatively moderate. I hold an MFA, but not from one of the most established or prestigious programs in the country (although I wouldn’t trade the experience I had with my instructors for anything, anywhere else). I do try to be helpful to other writers; I pass on submission opportunities, support my colleagues’ accomplishments and books, and sometimes critique and/or edit a friend’s work upon request. I’ve taught writing at a university, in adult education classes, and as a one-on-one mentor.

But in the end I often wonder what I have to say that’s different from what has already been said.

The same question sometimes blocks my creative writing. I’ve noticed this lately, since I’ve been working at a temporary job that involves interacting with well-known, highly accomplished writers. When I sit down to draft or edit a piece of my own writing, I become convinced that I don’t have anything exceptional to offer. I worry that my writing might just be…nothing special. That idea feels, to a writer, like something of a curse – after all, to be a writer you have to believe that you have something to say – something important and/or of value to your reader (or, in your dreams, your many readers). You also have to believe that you have the ability to express what are saying in an engaging, artistic, and hopefully unique way. If you stop believing in any of that, you find yourself staring at a blank page wondering why you aren’t doing something that is actually useful, like moving the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer.

It’s tough. Sometimes I read the work of writers whom I consider to be very good, and I know that my work doesn’t approach what they are doing. Maybe their diction is more expansive and literary, or their similes and metaphors are unexpected and especially creative. Maybe they have the guts to bare their souls or tell it like it is in ways that I tend to avoid. Maybe they write about topics that seem trail-blazing when I’m working on a piece about an opossum in my backyard. Regardless of the particular reason in each case, what I think when I read their work is: “I’m just not there.” And then I get discouraged. And then I take the laundry out of the dryer and start to fold it.

What I’m working on really hard now is to try to think: “I’m not there, but I’m here. And here is just as worthwhile as there.” Every time I sit down to write, even if I’m just writing a blog post, I try to tell myself that I have just as much to say as anyone else. I don’t always believe it, but I’m getting there. And in the meantime, if you can relate to this post and it has helped convince you that you too have something to say, too, then I’m happy — and the blog is doing its job.