Writing Without the Answers

by Laura Didyk

For more than a year, I’ve been making lukewarm attempts to make progress on the memoir I’m writing, but a long list of “if onlys” have been standing squarely in my way. If only I had a place to write (my desk, which doubles as my kitchen table, is too high, and the chairs are too low). If only I had a financial cushion so I could afford to turn away freelance work for a time. If only I had the camaraderie of other writers for support (my closest writer friends are scattered around the country). If only all of these things would come to pass—then I could really get serious about this book.

Last spring, the then I’d been longing for arrived, in the form of a monthlong residency. Every “if only” on my list would be checked off: time, money, private space in which to work, and creative peers. What more could I ask for? What better circumstances?

All of my conditions were met. Yet I woke each morning of the residency with a seed of dread in my stomach, a seed that sprouted and grew during the seven-minute walk down the dirt road to my studio, and blossomed as the sun made its slow arc across the New England sky from morning into late afternoon.

While I don’t believe in writer’s block, I do believe in self-doubt. In my case, not knowing what to write wasn’t the problem—my book had become octopus-like and unwieldy, it had a lot of pages but no structure, many stories but no central thread. I didn’t know where it began or where it ended. Should it start when I quit college to travel the country, or here and now, 21 years later, a grown woman with a street address and a car payment?

In the face of all these uncertainties, I froze.

Five days into my residency, I sat in my studio actively not writing. Instead, I watched an episode of the HBO show Girls on my laptop, one I’d seen a gazillion times already, feeling like a fraud. Why was simply sitting with myself at a desk such a difficult endeavor? Why did I spend more time hating myself for not writing than actually writing? These are questions almost every writer—and everyone who has ever wanted to accomplish something and can’t get themselves to even start—asks herself.

I’d forgotten that writing, like life, is a discovery process. The questions I had about my book, the ones that were paralyzing me, would only get answered by writing toward them. And if I waited until I wanted to write, until my mood was perfect, until the dread disappeared, it wasn’t going to happen.

Watching Hannah on Girls bury herself under the covers in response to devastating writer’s paralysis, and wanting to bury myself in the same way, I decided to embrace a new, Zen-like formula: If you want to write, then write. If you don’t want to write, write anyway. Write in the face of discomfort. Write in response to it. Write in spite of it.

One evening at dinner, I sat with a fiction writer and a composer and we talked at length—about our families, about where we were from, about our creative work. I got so comfortable in the conversation that I let it slip about my current difficulties with being at my desk—about the dread, about feeling totally and completely stuck. They both nodded over their half-eaten dinners. “Yup,” said the composer, with a laugh, “most days I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” “Totally,” said the novelist. “I quit being a writer at least three times today.” I laughed. They laughed. And I felt much less alone in my struggle.

During my remaining days at the colony, I managed to have some inspired, enjoyable writing sessions, along with some truly dismal ones. The curious thing was that, once I got home and started reviewing the work I’d done, I couldn’t distinguish which writing came out of my best days and which came out of my worst. Mood didn’t matter. Dread didn’t matter. Self-doubt didn’t matter—at least to the writing itself.

On my last day of the residency, I took my time walking down the long dirt road to my studio. I strolled. The dread in my chest was smaller and less perceptible than it had been two weeks before. I breathed in my surroundings—the pine trees, the light, the smell of the spring thaw—and felt a surge of gratitude. This is what it’s like to be a writer, I thought, a bloom of dread alongside a surge of gratitude. Or maybe this is just what it’s like to be alive.

Laura Didyk, MFA, is an essayist, poet, and a former athlete with a lifelong passion for nutritional health and optimal living. She has had her work published in literary magazines throughout the country, and has been awarded fellowships at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative  Arts.

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