On Not Writing

By Robin Lippincott, Spalding Low-Residency MFA

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If a wound is great
you cannot turn it into
something that is spoken,
it can barely be written.
—Michael Ondaatje, Warlight

I want to write about not writing, because sometimes we don’t; and sometimes when we don’t, we don’t because we can’t. (Of course, there are numerous reasons why writers don’t/can’t write, many of which are chronicled in Tillie Olsen’s seminal book, Silences).

As some of you know, I recently experienced the death of my partner of 36 years, Lee Salkovitz. Two years ago, during the fall season, Lee was experiencing some of the troubling symptoms of ALS, signs we knew all-too-well because his father and one of his four brothers had died of ALS (yes, this had for a long time been an albatross hanging over us). Lee was finally diagnosed in December 2016, and he died on the 6th of May, 2017. During that time, all I could offer was a minimum level of care and comfort for his suffering: it was, without question, the worst thing I have ever experienced, (and having grown up gay in the rural south in the 1960s, I’ve experienced a lot of bad things).

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Despite the advice of some to “take notes” during Lee’s illness (the thought of which, honestly, nauseated me), I didn’t, nor could I write at all—not in the worrisome months before his diagnosis, not during the harrowing days of the fast-moving, hideously debilitating disease itself, before he died, and not, for a long while, afterwards.

Then, my friend and colleague Debra Kang Dean generously reached out to me, and suggested we write renku together. I didn’t know the form, but Debra taught it to me, and for over a year that was the only writing I did, and it was a lifeline: to say that writing renku with Debra may have saved my life is not hyperbole. Three of these renku were published in Diode Poetry Journal, Volume 11, Number 1.


But now what? is what I’ve been asking myself. Lee died a year and five-plus months ago, and because I’m a writer and have been a writer for all of my adult life, it would seem that I will have to write something about what he and I went through, perhaps before I’m able to write anything else. But what? And how? And when? I know that many people have experienced similar tragedies in their lives, that Lee and I are not unique in this. And yet, no one experienced what we experienced in the way we experienced it; and of course, getting that down on the page is one of the great values of writing.

Now what? Six or eight weeks ago, I finally wrote a piece of prose, the first in over two years. It is one page, and it is “about” my response to Lee’s illness and death. “Only one page?” you might ask. Yes, that was all I could manage. Can manage. Right now. Because to write about the experience I have to, to some extent, re-live it. And there is also the question of how to write about it in a way that’s of value to others, and that bears witness to how bravely Lee faced the disease, how proud I was and am of how he maintained his dignity, remained very much himself, to the very end. I don’t know. Thus, that one page, though now I have also written this.

Has something happened in your life that stopped your writing, and that, in turn, made you feel as though you would have to write about it, but you were unsure how, or when? I would love to hear from you, and also for this blog to serve as a reminder that you are not alone.

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness
simply means being able to say,
‘What are you going through?
—Simone Weil

Robin Lippincott

Robin Lippincott has been a member of the Spalding MFA faculty since 2001. He has published six books, most recently, Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell.


17 thoughts on “On Not Writing

  1. Thanks for this and I am so sorry. ALS is a hard, hard disease. And my family have been through one exposure oh and to know what would be happening. Yikes! Like Vonnegut’s “ Tinequake” on steroids. Thanks also for the shout out to Tillie. I keep on saying, she needs a new updated and expanded edition. There are so many of us silent ones.

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  2. Dear Robin – I’m so very sorry for your loss. I suspect many of us have had experiences so excruciating that to write about them has seemed utterly impossible. Two events detonated in my life and became turning points that shaped everything that came thereafter. Before and after. One was when my young son was hit by a car and I knelt at his side on the street. My heart still pounds to tell the story and for years I could not talk or write about it. We were lucky. He survived. The second was the death of my marriage. Again, I was completely undone, as if gravity had vanished and the world was unraveling in slow, suspended animation. It has been ten years and now I can finally write about it. For writers, I think it is necessary, at some point, to commit it to the page, or all that pain spills out elsewhere. We write to pay tribute and to grieve. My sense is that you are doing fine. Maybe not every minute of the day, but you wrote this piece. Thank you.

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  3. Robin, I am so touched by your writing about Lee’s struggle, and yours. As you know I was stricken by West Nile virus. I spent six weeks in hospitals and four months in a nursing home. At home, I slept in a hospital bed in our living room for a year. All through this ordeal people I love often suggested I write about my experience. At home I tried. Every word I wrote stunk. My writing was sappy. Until I had the objectivity that comes with time and distance, I was hobbled. I returned to fiction which required a mental focus that made my brain healthy again, though different. I found my writing to have clarity and emotional honesty, attributes it lacked prior to WNV. I hope to write of my experience with West Nile some day. I believe, as with any story, when it is ready to be told, I will know. Now, if I could remember to update my blog. Good luck. I much admire you.
    Mary Lou Northern

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  4. Thank you for this, Robin. I was so glad to hear Debra’s reading of your co-authored poems. And to see your face in the audience last Thursday.
    Yes to your question. I experienced a three to four year trauma and deep depression when I moved to the U.S. permanently. One year was so awfully horrible that I could not find a way to write about it for 46 years, until this fall. The essay is under submission. I’ll let you know when it’s published. I hope you can keep writing. ♥️♥️♥️

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    1. Thanks so much, Elaine; I was sorry not to get to see you. I enjoyed your reading and wish you the best with the essay, etc.

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  5. Thank you for this, Robin. That feeling that you need to write about the experience but don’t know how is something a lot of us can relate to because writing is such a significant part of processing experience for most writers.

    I couldn’t write after my daughter was born. It’s a different kind of life-altering experience, but some of the feelings related to writing again are similar. I knew that I needed to write about how my life had changed, but I didn’t know how to do it. I was afraid what I wrote would be a cliche. I was afraid I would fail to honor the experience, which was so profound to me, but also not exactly unique. Greg Pape told me to be honest and be specific–good advice but not easy.

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  6. Dear Robin,

    Thank you for your blog. Not writing is a choice and waiting for the right time is brave. My waiting and not writing about it occurs with my daughter, feeling the pain of watching her make choices to live on the street and continue using meth. I love the idea of writers helping writers and Debra reaching out her hand to help you. Your recent alumni workshop gave me a hand to hold and a place to start writing again.


    1. Thank you for this, Sara. I’m so glad to hear that the workshop helped you start writing again. Take good care.


  7. Robin,

    Thank you for sharing this with us and for inviting response. I am so sorry for your loss and am ever hopeful that you will continue to find your way back to words and to writing. In answer to your question, yes. Eight years ago I was stopped cold by something that happened. It wasn’t a death of a person I loved but of a family. I didn’t and couldn’t write anything (almost not even a grocery list) for so long. I managed to come out of that and find my way to Spalding. I know the day will come when I will write about that experience. I can feel it as sure as I feel myself writing this to you. But I also know the time has to be right, as it must be for you. Good luck to you! And when the time comes for you, good luck again and again!


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