Jill Smolowe hasn’t been writing much lately. She has a pretty good excuse:
And therein lies the problem. Thinking about writing is one thing; writing is another matter entirely.
Though my professional writing life continues to produce a steady stream of words (and a steady paycheck), my personal writing life—the one that produces memoirs, essays and novels without guarantee of income or publication—has been largely in hibernation for three years now. I know that weekly magazine output would, for many, add up to a writing career. Certainly, it did for me for many years. But at some point in my 30-plus-year journalism career, my writing appetite no longer felt sated by short pieces about other people’s lives. It came to require the finding of personal expression through longer-form memoir and fiction. That’s the work that leaves me alternately frustrated and satisfied; that’s the work that has been slumbering the better part of these last few years.
Granted, some of my excuses for avoiding work are probably better than yours. On January 1, 2007 my husband was diagnosed with leukemia. That day, without reservation, I set aside the novel I was working on, a manuscript that after two years and 200 pages was finally beginning to take shape. Nine months later when Joe returned to his desk, I returned to mine. In fits and starts that mirrored his medical fortunes, I eventually finished a first draft of the novel.
Then, in June 2009, my husband died.
I know. I feel your sympathy. Thank you.
But this isn’t about my pain. This is about my writing—which is what I haven’t been doing since that startling moment when my husband of 24 years fried some eggs, chatted with me about another person’s colon cancer, then abruptly checked out of my life forever.
That someone else with the advanced-stage colon cancer? My sister.
Like I said, some of my excuses for avoiding work are probably better than yours. After Joe died, countless people told me, “Don’t make any major decisions for a year.” By that they meant don’t make any life-altering decisions that I might later regret. (Don’t relocate. Don’t sell my house. Don’t quit my job. Don’t remarry). When I would say that I’m not writing, I would receive nods of approval. “Of course you’re not. You need to give yourself a break.”
What they didn’t realize—what I didn’t realize—is that I’d already made a big decision: after 12 years of honoring a pre-dawn, five-day-a-week appointment in front of my computer screen, I’d bailed on my writing life. By so-doing I’d stripped away a key part of my identity: writer.
Granted, during these last nine months I’ve journaled, at first dutifully and without heart, lately with increasing attention to detail. All the while I’ve been telling myself, There’s material here for future writing projects. (Duh.) But recapping events, recording snippets of conversation, providing memory jogs for future narratives, does that count? Christina rendered a verdict in an earlier entry on this blog: “All of it is part of creating a novel. But it’s not writing.”
I couldn’t agree more. For decades I referred to myself as a “magazine writer” or a “journalist,” unable to lay claim to the title of “writer” because that seemed too exalted, a goal to which I could only aspire. Then one day after years of slaving away daily at novels (none of which have found their way into print), it suddenly came to me: I’m a writer. With that acknowledgment, the word lost its loftiness and assumed the contours of a fitting self-description. By then, by dint of persistent, hard work, I’d found my way to a very simple (some might say unsparing) definition of writer: a writer is someone who writes. Period.
The corollary to that, of course, is also simple (and equally unsparing): if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. Period.
That would be me these last nine months: not a writer. Yeah, I’ve got some compelling excuses. But that’s all they are. Excuses. And more and more, of late, they sit less and less comfortably.
Outside, I hear the rumble of garbage trucks. Dawn is breaking. Today, I know, is going to be a better day. Why? Because today I’ve pushed myself beyond thinking about writing and done some work. Granted a piece like this is a sprint, not the more demanding and disciplined marathon of a novel or a memoir. But wrestling these ideas into coherent shape is an important first step. Fate, which has already stripped away one identity (wife) and imposed another (widow), may not yet be done with me, but only I can lay claim to that identity (writer) I continue to regard as so precious. With this piece, I am serving myself notice: time to stop with the excuses and restake my claim.
Jill Smolowe is author of the memoir An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of the anthology A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents. An award-winning journalist, she was a foreign affairs writer for Newsweek and Time, and is currently a Senior Writer at People. Her articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, among them The Washington Post Magazine, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Reader’s Digest “Today’s Best NonFiction” series.