Bête Noire

Dear Fu,

I want to be a writer. I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer but, for most of my life, I’ve compromised that dream because of parental expectations and, I think, fear — fear that I don’t have what it takes, that I won’t make any money, that I’ll be ridiculed, but most importantly, fear that what I write will always be inadequate to what wants to be expressed. I know I need to let myself write badly before I can write well, but I have an excessively harsh, impatient inner critic that just won’t shut up and I can’t seem to stamp it out. It’s debilitating.

There was a time when the pull of others’ expectations and my own inner conflict ravaged my life. I was lost, depressed and suffered from anxiety attacks. Then, I decided to take responsibility for my life and everything changed. Now, I’m happy. Really, really happy and flourishing. Except in this one respect. Writing has remained my bête noire.

I’ve tried to write off and on for years (I had a blog for a while, I keep a diary, I recently had a small writing job for a university alumni magazine) but I haven’t been able to give myself to it completely, with discipline, over an extended period. I even tried to forget about it for a time but the niggling feeling that I want to write has never left me. I feel like I’ve broken an important promise to myself and so I berate myself. I’m a freelance translator (which I consider a form of writing) and I really enjoy it, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a consolation for an abandoned dream. Now that I’m putting it all into words, I realize I can’t even write what it is exactly that’s making me sputter. What’s wrong with me? Is it supposed to be this hard?

Now I have a toddler and watching him grow really brings home how quickly time is passing. It won’t be long before I’m on my deathbed, regretting all the words that never got written.

What you write will always be inadequate to what you want to express. That’s not the goal. Language is imprecise. You must know this, as a translator. The words on the page will never equal the slurred, wordless song in your head. And because you have taste and self-awareness, you’ll see the gap between what you’ve created and what you wish to create, and you’ll see the gap between your work and the work of the writers you most admire. You’ll edit and rewrite to narrow the gap, as much as you’re able, until you’re exhausted, until it is the best approximation you’re capable of, and it will still fall vastly short. That’s the goal: exhaustion and approximation.

What does it mean to “have what it takes”? How will you know? When you’ve published something? You already have, in the alumni magazine. Did it change everything, to see your name in print? Has a friend ever read your work and pronounced it good, have you ever hit upon a turn of phrase you loved, has anyone left a positive comment on your blog? Did these quiet your self-doubt and the inner critic for good?

This is, again, a consequence of having taste and self-awareness. In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood writes about wondering if she has anything to contribute to the library of the ages, when there are so many books and writers already. Margaret fucking Atwood!

Yes, it is supposed to be this hard.

You will probably never make much money from writing. Almost all writers, including some very talented, well-connected, and hardworking ones, don’t. But you are ahead of the game here already. Blogging, keeping a diary, and contributing to an alumni magazine are all writing. I agree that translation is writing. You are being paid to do something you enjoy. You are being paid to write.

I’ll say it again: you are writing. You are flexing the muscle. It isn’t precisely the kind of writing you wish to be doing. You wish to give yourself over to another kind of writing, with discipline, over an extended period. This is such a difficult prospect that a whole industry and awards system exists around it. Google “writing residency.” Residencies exist in many forms, but broadly speaking, there are funded ones, which don’t charge, maybe even pay, and are awarded on the basis of your work and/or achievements; unfunded ones, where you pay tuition or fees for whatever facilities and resources they offer; and semi-funded ones, where you are given partial scholarship or pay below market-rate for artist-specific housing. There are hundreds of these all over North America and the world. There are even ones specifically for parents.

There is also what’s sometimes called a “self-directed residency.” That is, leave your son with your partner and book yourself a weekend alone somewhere. Firmly declare that your writing is important, and everything else — your happy, thriving life — can wait two days. Gift yourself time and space.

Aspiring writers have groups and write-ins. They do NaNoWriMo. They take classes. They have little systems and routines: one hour every Saturday at the library, twenty minutes each day where no one is allowed to disturb them. Not because they are braver or more disciplined or less busy than you. Not because their work is more valuable. Not because the world has given them more recognition and confidence. Because they’d go crazy otherwise, as you’ve experienced.

As for your deathbed — I know from identifying details in your email that I had to cut that you’re quite young. Another quick Googling will reveal to you all the famous writers who started late in life. (It’s a popular topic for listicles.) And I’ve known many writers and artists who had to take a break from their work while their children were young; there are only so many hours in the day. It is always too soon to regret, and never too late to begin.

You learned to manage your depression and anxiety. You built a life that makes you happy. You recognized there is something more you want. These are rare, tremendous accomplishments, rarer and more challenging, I believe, than opening a text editor and typing one word after another.