By Robin Lippincott, Spalding MFA Fiction Faculty
I’m writing prose again for the first time in three years. My previous blog post detailed why I hadn’t written, and why I had been unable to write for so long: the catastrophic illness and death of my husband, Lee. Yes, I am finally writing again, and I’m happy to be able to say that it feels good. But because it has been so long, I’m trying to hold the writing that I’m doing lightly: of course, I hope it amounts to something, becomes a publishable piece and thus, a product, but instead of focusing on that I’m trying instead to appreciate and enjoy the process, and the simple fact that I am once again able to spend a part of my day writing, as I’ve done for most of my adult life.
It was a very long road back. During Lee’s illness, and for over a year after his death, I understood in the most visceral of ways why I couldn’t write. But after a while, that is, within the last six months, I began to wonder: What was keeping me from writing now? Was I being self-indulgent? It’s been my experience that grief has no sense of time, and yet so many other writers, I told myself (Joan Didion, Elizabeth Alexander, and C. S. Lewis are just a few examples), have written sooner/more immediately following the death of a loved one. Why couldn’t I?
My lover, Stevo, a musician and artist, was generous in discussing this subject with me, offering his intelligence and experience, and encouraging me to dig deep. Largely through talks with him I was able to excavate two reasons (beside the obvious) why I had been unable to write for so long. (But first, a necessary aside: Less than four months after Lee was diagnosed with ALS, because the velocity of the disease was so breathtaking, I was no longer able to care for him by myself and we made the no-choice decision to leave the Boston area, where we had lived together for 36 years, and move to Central Florida, where I’m from originally and where my beloved sisters, who offered their home and their help, live.)
The first thing I came to understand about why I was (still) unable to write after two-plus years and counting, was that, for me, writing, that is, creating something out of nothing (that blank page or screen) requires a kind of existential courage; and I simply didn’t have any left, having spent all of it—and then some.
The other reason I identified is somewhat akin to Flaubert’s famous statement to “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
My life had been anything but regular and orderly. In fact, life as I had known it for most of my adult years had been ripped away from me. I have always needed a sense of stability, security, to be able to write, and I no longer had that either.
This realization is not too far afield from Virginia Woolf’s assertion, in her seminal text A Room of One’s Own, in which she sought to answer the question why women had been kept from writing, that a woman needs money and a room of her own in order to write. And in recently revisiting this idea, I came to think that this same thesis could be said to apply to other minorities or oppressed people throughout history.
In the meantime, I eventually moved back to the Boston area. And shortly after I identified these two factors pertaining to why I still couldn’t write, I was finally able to start trying to write. I spent five minutes writing that first morning, had no ideas, nor a clue as to what I was doing, but I kept at it. The next day I wrote for ten minutes; fifteen minutes the following day, and so on—twenty minutes, half an hour. Yes, these first days of scribbling were excruciating; I told Stevo all I had was a mess of words. But eventually, as I continued trying and was, in time, able to spend an hour or more, those words began building toward and accruing around an idea. And now I’m writing again, working on a specific something, in this case a long essay, or perhaps even a book—I’m not yet sure which.
I’m writing this blog post now with the hope that it might be helpful to someone, specifically to those of you who might be going through something similar, or who have already been through something similar, or who will, at some point, experience a writing silence akin to this long, dark night of the soul. I wonder if what you need to write is the same as what I need, or similar, or maybe it’s something completely different? Regardless, I’ve written this to tell you that there is hope, and yes, light too, but you’ve got to seek it out, and you’ve got to be dogged about doing so—when you feel able. I’ll be cheering you on.
Robin Lippincott is the author of six books, most recently Blue Territory: A Meditation on the Life and Art of Joan Mitchell. He has been teaching in the Spalding MFA Program since 2001. He lives in the Boston area.