Sometimes, I make big plans for an essay that I’m writing. This essay becomes THE ESSAY, the important one in which I say all of the things. It emerges as the most important essay I’ve ever written. It comes to define who I am as writer, but also as a person. I start thinking about this essay for days, then weeks, and then a month (or months). I might pitch this oh-so-important essay to an outlet familiar with my work. I might even have a deadline. I tell myself that this essay will be easy to write because it is THE ESSAY. Plus, I already know what I want to write (or at least, I think I’m sure that I know what I want to write).
In my head, this essay begins a life of its own. It becomes groundbreaking and earth-shattering, smart and analytical, lovely and true. Most importantly, it becomes SIGNIFICANT and CRUCIAL. It starts to gain mass before I’ve even put words to the page. Its weight becomes heavy, veering closely to unwieldly. This essay appears more and more significant.
I imagine drafts. I imagine lovely turns of phrase and clever uses of metaphor. But mostly, I start to imagine the attention this essay will bring to me. Who will read it? Who will share it? Who will compliment me on Twitter? Who will tell me that what I write is significant, important, and necessary? Who will offer virtual high fives? This line of imagining is never helpful. I’ve started imagining the reception of this essay before I’ve written a word. This does not bode well.
I keep imagining. I imagine and imagine and imagine writing this significant essay. But, I don’t put any words on the page. Strange. I keep imagining, and now, this imaginary essay is so damn good that I’m afraid actually drafting. Writing it will ruin the magic that I’ve conjured. What if the magic disappears? What if this essay, my beloved imaginary essay, is not good, lovely, or important? What if it isn’t THE ESSAY, but an essay? I feel panic rising in my throat. I manage to choke it back down. Temporarily.
I just need to start writing, I say to myself. Just start writing. That’s it. That’s all I have to do. I’m sure this essay will be fine, I say aloud. I’m sure this essay won’t be fine, my brain chimes in helpfully. I try to ignore my brain. She tends to be an asshole. I take a deep breath. I’m a writer, after all. I’ll just write the essay. I will power through. That’s not hard, right? It can be hard, my brain reminds me. I WRITE FOR A LIVING, BRAIN, I think, I HAVE THIS UNDER CONTROL. I’m not sure you do, my brain whispers.
I set up time to write this essay, but I keep finding reasons not to. I need more coffee, so I go to the kitchen to fill up my mug emblazoned with NOPE. I have other assignments, so I research, report, and write them. I make my other deadlines with cheerful-albeit-grim determination. I fold laundry. I wash dishes. I take the dog for a walk. I watch the same animated movies with my kids that I’ve watched a thousand times. I check Twitter once, twice, or forty times. I think about what I’ll have for lunch. I have other things to do, I tell myself. Seriously?, my brain says.
I still keep imagining this essay. But then, worry sets in, and I am a champion worrier. (My seven-year-old told me once that worrying is my superpower, and I was unsure whether to be proud or terrified.) Maybe this essay isn’t significant, important, good, or magic. Maybe what I have to say isn’t even okay. Maybe what I have to say is bad. I suppress a shudder and worry more.
Maybe it would be easier to let the essay go then to write, write, and write it. Goodbye, essay, so long! Maybe I’ll email the editor and take back the pitch. Maybe I shouldn’t write any more. Maybe I shouldn’t write ever. This thought stops me cold. My worry increases. I become a worry monster. I start to ponder my life choices that lead to the decision to write this particular essay, the bane of my existence and the beginning of a whole new existential crisis. An imaginary essay should not have this much power.
I still don’t write this essay. Who knew that an essay I wanted to write about hope would be the one to defeat me? There’s some irony that I refuse to face.
And then, I decide to open a brand-new Google document. I stare at the blank page. It stares back at me. I decide on a shitty title for what is sure to be a shitty essay. I type my name underneath, and type “word count” underneath that. This is my routine ( title, name, word count). I start all new essays this way. My routine is my official start, a signal that I’m now beginning an essay. It soothes me a bit.
I take a deep breath and then another. I write one sentence and then another. I look at these sentences. They aren’t my best. So, I write another sentence. Soon, I have a paragraph. It ain’t great, but I know that revising makes my writing better. I can revise like a demon. I keep writing.
Now, there are multiple paragraphs. How did that happen? I’m not sure, so I keep typing one word after another.
Wait, this one paragraph isn’t what I imagined at all. It is different and strange and kind of wonderful. Wait, this essay is not what I imagined either. This essay is shaping into its own creature. It’s partially what I imagined, but it is also much more. New insight. New turns of phrase. New ideas. A whole new arc that this essay is chasing wildly.
Suddenly, I don’t care if this essay is significant, important, or even worthwhile. I need to know how it is going to turn out. What will it be? What am I going to say?
While I was imagining one essay, I end up writing another. A different, but better essay. Perhaps, this essay is one that only I can write. Perhaps, it’s not. I find that I don’t care. I just want to write this new essay that I couldn’t have imagined I would write. My imagination limits me some. Or perhaps, I get caught up in the imagining and forget about the particular magic of writing.
The blank page becomes not an accusation of what I haven’t done, but an invitation for what I can create. Please remember this. I probably won’t. (I know I won’t.)
Remember that sometimes making something bigger than it is distracts from the work. Remember to make your writing small and manageable. Remember that you can always add, revise, and rewrite. Remember that an essay is simply an essay. Remember that it being an essay is enough. (The essay doesn’t have to justify its existence in the world, and neither do you.) Remember that you want to write essays because you want to write essays. Remember that writing is what makes you who are, so it is okay to get a little caught up in reception, but not entirely. Remember that you write for you and not for anybody else.
I’ll try to remember too.
I look again at this essay, this new essay forming on the page, and I realize that I’m excited. I keep writing, and I wonder, Will this essay be any good? Hell, if I know. That makes me smile. And I realize I don’t really care if the essay will be good or important or lovely. I just want to write it to see what happens. What will this essay be like when I finish? I don’t know, and there are still too many possibilities. I can’t wait to see what this essay becomes. That’s the reason I continue to write. And it’s the reason I tend to forget when I begin to imagine essays in the first place. I’m learning to remember. Maybe you will too.
This post began as a rushed Twitter essay about the difficulty of writing an essay that I wanted to be important. I finished that assignment just today, and it didn’t turn out like I imagined. It might be better. It might not be. But, I wrote it anyway, and that deserves a victory lap.
Update (August 16): And here’s the finished essay on Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, the revolutionary power of hope, the power of our actions, and the uncertainty of the future. I’m pretty proud of it, so consider giving it a read.