I woke up on Sunday convinced that I have no words left. That I had nothing to say, and perhaps, I was done as a writer. That I had already written my best essays. That I had no good sentences left in me. I was out of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I was done.
Sundays are rarely writing days for me. Weekends are family time, so I let my partner and kids distract me from the angst chasing me. They are always my favorite distractions.
On Monday morning, my alarm on my watch buzzed me at 4:45. There was a plane to catch to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been invited to Elizabethtown College, where my friend Richard teaches, to give a reading at Bowers Writers House. My reading was from an essay on Dozier School and my hometown, one of the most personal essays I’ve ever written. (A story that is still unfolding and that I am chasing as hard as I can.) The day before I was to be a visiting writer, I was convinced that I might no longer be able to write. The irony was not lost on me. My angst was fitting, and truth be told, somewhat expected. My writing life can be narrated as story of doubt, angst, and anxiety. I keep trying to tell another story, but this is the narrative that continues to emerge.
As I pulled out of my drive way, I probed this fresh (and melodramatic) concern about writing. Out of the neighborhood, take a left, pass construction and new development, take a right, drive past big churches and small churches, other neighborhoods, stop at red lights, and take a right onto I10 to get the airport. The interstate snaked in front of me, but the darkness of the early morning meant I could only see what the headlights made visible.
Why, I thought, did I feel like I had nothing left to say? Was I not nourishing my creativity? Were there no more stories for me to tell? Was I actually running out of words? This seemed improbable, impossible even. Of course, there are still things I want to write. At any given moment, there’s a revolving set of essays stored in my head, on to-do lists and post-it notes, and in my journals and planner. Perhaps, what I really meant was that there are topics on which I have nothing left to say. Topics that no longer interest me. This could account for some of my fatalism, but not for all of it.
While trying to figure out my anxiety about writing, I noticed the sign for mile marker 190 on the interstate. I missed my exit to the airport six miles ago. On I10 outside of Tallahassee, the next exit was nine miles away. I looked at the darkened road stretched before me and slammed one hand on the steering wheel. I could cut across the median, but it is uneven with sharp inclines and declines. The morning was too dark to navigate it safely. I didn’t want to wreck my car in a stupid attempt to make my plane.
“FUCK,” I screamed. And then I screamed in frustration. And screamed again. With my rage expressed in a worldless howl, I began to breathe deeply. I briefly comprehended why my toddler yells in anger. The sense of calm that settles on you afterward feels pretty spectacular.
I kept driving. Miles passed by quicker than I imagined: one, two, three, four, and then nine. I turned onto exit 181 and managed to get back on interstate headed in the right direction. I would make it to the airport in time for my flight, but I could feel the tension taking over my shoulders. I needed to make it there soon. “Typical,” I muttered, “This is typical. I get distracted and miss a turn.”
But, I only missed a turn. I was able to make it again when I had another chance. I made my flight and then the next. When the plane touched down in at Harrisburg International Airport, there was snow piled on the edges of the runway. It was grey and slushy and beautiful. I snapped a picture of the snow for my daughter.
When I gathered my purse and laptop to deplane, I found myself thinking again, What if I have nothing left to say? Hell of a visiting writer I was going to be. Visions of cherubic undergrads asking me about the writing life bounced around in my head. Wide eyes and eager smiles waiting patiently for me to disperse wisdom. What would I even say? I got a handle on my nerves as I walked through the concourse, by security, and beyond baggage claim. By the time I reached the parking lot, I decided to table all of my concerns and enjoy my time with Richard and his students. Angst can always wait.
Hours later in my warm hotel room, Chris called to check in. We talked about a recent post on Impostor Syndrome. He sent it to me earlier, and I read and tweeted about it. I admitted that I live and breathe doubt as a writer. This was likely nothing new to Chris. We’ve been married 14 years. He knows me and my neuroses pretty well. But still, the moment felt like a confession.
“I look over my essays and wonder what if I’ve written the best essay I’m ever going to write? Or the best sentence?”
I can almost feel Chris’ smile through the phone. I close my eyes and imagine his dimples and the mischievous glint in his eyes. He laughs his easy laugh, one of things that I love most about him.
Teasingly, he asks, “That sentence from the last issue of Women in Higher Education? Or maybe the best word is from your ‘I look like a professor’ essay?”
There’s a dramatic pause. “What if your best word is ‘the’?”
I dissolve into giggles. “I’m pretty sure my best word is ‘asshole’ in the upcoming issue.”
We laugh together.
After the call ends, I recognize that this is my familiar anxiety before a break through. That I’m not so much afraid that I have no words left, but that the words that I have to give are part of a bigger project, likely a book. That I’m finally ready to direct my creative energies to something else. I have newer and different things to say.
I’m at a beginning, and I’m terribly afraid. The road is dark. The headlights only illuminate a few feet in front of me. I’m not sure I’ll make my exit, but I’ll get another chance. I keep driving anyway.