This essay was commissioned for an essay series on resilience from Writing NSW and originally published on 3 November 2021
I don’t know if you want to hear this. If you’re reading in the hopes of getting good tips that will spur you on in your writing endeavours, then frankly, you probably don’t. You might be where I was not overly long ago, when I impulse-purchased a magazine at the supermarket while waiting in the checkout queue because I’d flipped through it on a whim and I saw that one of the articles was by a writer who was struggling to write her next novel and feeling burdened by the pressure of expectations — from readers and from herself. And because I never flip through magazines or buy them (I’m sorry, magazine industry!), I did buy that one because I thought perhaps it was fate and the article held the magic key I’d been looking for.
I too am a writer struggling to write her next novel while feeling burdened by the pressure of expectations! was what I thought to myself, placing the magazine on the conveyer belt amidst the pouches of kids’ yoghurt and packets of my preferred instant noodles (Wai Wai crab-flavoured rice vermicelli). This article was written for me! Then I went home, unpacked the groceries, and read the article. I resonated with it — no doubt about that. To my great disappointment, though, reading the article did not help my writing. I recycled the magazine.
Back to the thing I want to say: apart from the fact that you might not want to hear it, I feel that it borders on taboo — in the writing world at least. It’s up there with I don’t like books and when I feel there’s too much repetition in my writing, I just replace words with unfamiliar synonyms I find in the thesaurus.
But I’ll say it anyway. Here it is:
It’s okay not to write.
And I don’t mean, it’s okay, but obviously, it would be better if you did write. Nor do I mean, the trick is to pretend that it’s okay not to write and this will be sure to get you writing. I mean it’s perfectly fine if you’re not writing at the moment and if you don’t write anything ever again.
Why am I uttering such heresy? Yes, heresy. Isn’t that what such an observation amounts to in the context of this Cult of Writing you and I have joined? Writing is our life, isn’t it? Writing is who we are. Writing is where we draw our strength and what gives us meaning. Also, believe this with all your heart or it will taint your work and compromise the quality of your writing.
Given this creed to which we cling, I wasn’t too surprised when, during a period of time when I’d pretty much stopped working on my new novel entirely and confessed as much to my writer friends — I’d been focusing on my literary translation commitments, I told them; and I’d had to work on small projects that kept popping up and that weren’t my novel; and I’d been taking care of my toddler two out of five workdays a week; and for a long while, I was really depressed; and then this global pandemic happened, accompanied by the joy of supervising online learning and at-home-entertainment for my six-year-old, etcetera, etcetera — no, I wasn’t surprised in the least that a number of my writer friends counselled, with the best of intentions, that I would feel better if I tried to set aside time to write. (Because, as you know, writing is where we writers seek refuge. It’s where we reconnect with ourselves and our passion, which, by the way, is writing.)
I tried to follow their advice, but soon ended up ignoring it instead. Not deliberately. Rather, when you don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to write, you simply don’t. Or at least I didn’t. I would still feel awfully guilty about it, though.
Cursing my lack of resilience as a writer, I ignored the fact that, as a person, I had miraculously weathered a great deal. Was weathering a great deal. I was bent, but not yet broken. Isn’t this what resilience is?
By the way, I have a friend who feels that writing has destroyed their life. They quit their job to devote themselves to being a full-time author and it has been rather disastrous. They are stressed, depressed, and broke. On the outside, they are a successful author, and let me tell you, they write like a dream. Their writing makes me breathless with adoration. But if my friend never wrote another thing again, and if quitting writing helped them find a way out of the pit, I would be wildly joyful and relieved.
There is a church service I attend occasionally, in addition to the one I usually attend. (Yes, yes, I know. It’s a lot of church.) The guy who runs this service is the chaplain for a crisis-accommodation centre in the city. He holds it for people who don’t feel comfortable attending more conventional churches, which consciously or unconsciously expect a certain degree of outward respectability from their attendees. The other thing the chaplain runs is a table at night outside Central Station serving coffee, sandwiches, and the option of conversation and prayer. He’s been running it for more than twenty years, so a lot of people who stop by are familiar with the table and enjoy having a chat.
I started volunteering for this table when I was at the lowest and most faithless I’d ever been. A friend told me that this thing needed volunteers and all my barriers were down and I thought, yeah, sure, why not, I’ll stand outside Central Station at night chatting and praying with complete strangers. The chaplain invites volunteers to drop in on the weekly service too. Both the volunteering thing and the service made me feel that maybe I could still believe in Jesus after all.
Anyway, during one of these services, I met a guy, white-haired, teeth worse for wear, tatts still going strong, who mentioned his dad shot him in the face when he was four years old. His dad shot his mum, then him before shooting himself. By a miracle, he, the son, survived. (‘Yeah, it was in all the papers at the time,’ the chaplain would tell me weeks later during my next volunteering stint.) ‘God saved me life,’ the guy told me, his voice a gravelly bass, the indentation in his grizzled cheek suddenly coming into view, clear and plain.
Resilience doesn’t always look like writing. Resilience can just be you still being here.
So yeah. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it’s okay not to write.