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Mourning the Writer I Used to Be

As we grow as people, must our creative self evolve along with us?

Becky Mandelbaum
Jul 17, 2018 · 12 min read
Photo by Chris Curry on Unsplash

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Outside of my relationship with my mother, writing has been the longest, most reliable, and arguably most rewarding relationship of my life. It has been with me since I could hold a pencil, and I imagine it being with me until I die. Sometimes I wonder what the last word I write will be, the last sentence — dark thoughts, but there is also a sweetness to them, to think of having writing by my side until the very end. Sometimes I imagine my writing as another person, perhaps the sister I never had. Or maybe she is an animal, a kind of spiritual pet — loyal and generous and, at the end of the day, a complete mystery.

As with any relationship, I harbor a fear that my connection with writing might one day end — that the invisible strings keeping two people in love will sever, and I’ll find myself alone and wordless, looking back on my writing life, wondering where exactly I erred. This is where I stand: perpetually on the brink of failure. All writers stand here. Sometimes it seems like we’ve stepped away, only to discover a brand-new cliff has formed at our feet.

Although I’m only 27, a relatively young age in the writing world, I look back eight, five, even three years ago and feel like I’ve forgotten as much as I’ve learned. There is a particular fear I have that as I strive for perfection, I also eliminate the bumps and craters that constitute true art. Am I getting better? Or am I only smoothing out the grammatical kinks and technical hiccups any fifth-grader could master with a copy of Strunk & White and enough time and patience?

The way I see it goes something like this: There used to be an energy to my writing, a reckless humor, an unabashed element of the grotesque. A literary hubris that translated, on the page, as joy. I wrote without fear and with very little understanding of the literary world — what couldn’t be done, what shouldn’t be done, and what had already been done and was therefore off-limits. My literary world was a Garden of Eden, predating knowledge, sin, and law. In college, I lived in a great big bohemian house with six other friends and remember writing, mostly, for them, as clear and beautiful an intention as I’ve ever had. I wrote to entertain them, to make them laugh. I wrote to give them that little flutter in their hearts that only a great story can set in motion. I wrote, in the most basic sense, to make them love me.

I wrote poetry back then, too. Tons of it. I’d see or hear something — a sliver of Laffy Taffy wrapper stuck in a spiderweb, a squirrel eating a hot dog bun, a friend playing a musical saw — and feel physically compelled to turn it into a poem. There was too much beauty and emotion, and I didn’t know what to do with it other than put it on paper. (I still feel this way — what do the nonwriters do with their worlds? Their feelings? How can they chug along without creating a record of it all?) During the day, I’d hole up in a strange corner of campus, filling notebook after notebook. About what? About everything. To the young writer’s mind, everything is poetry.

You might think: Nobody wants to read their shitty teenage poetry. But you’d be wrong. My computer crashed last Thanksgiving, taking a large portion of my early writing with it (think: openly crying at Best Buy among a sea of excited Black Friday shoppers), but before this happened I would occasionally browse through my poems from high school and college. Each time, I would find something and think: There’s no way I could write this kind of poem now.

Were those poems good? Yes and no. (I’m hesitant to say that any poetry is good or bad — that’s not the nature of poetry.) To speak in publishing terms, a journal would never want them; they were filled with little errors, extraneous words, and bombastic claims. But emotionally, they were more powerful than anything I could write now. They were dripping with life — you could practically wring them out and drink from them. They were quirky, experimental, and bold. (A friend whose partner is a musician told me he listens to songs he wrote when he was in his early twenties and feels the same mixture of admiration and terror I feel when I read my old poetry.)

Now I write mostly prose — controlled, neat, purposeful prose. As proper and carefully arranged as an antique tea set. When I write, I write not for my friends but for a hazier, more amorphous audience, one I’ve never seen. Over time, I’ve developed a fear that this audience will dislike me, find me naive, or, worst of all, tell me I should stop writing altogether and cast me out. They will report me to the gatekeepers, and the gatekeepers will put a great red X on my forehead, and I’ll finally be ostracized from the world into which I’ve so carefully and incrementally snuck. Back then, when it was just my writing and me, I didn’t know there were gatekeepers. I didn’t even know there was a gate.

One of my best friends from college, Bernadette, recently asked me whether I still write poetry. It felt like a punch to the heart, as if she’d enquired about a mutual friend who’d died.

“Not really,” I told her.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know — I’m not sure what happened. I just stopped.”

“That’s a shame,” she said. “I used to love your poetry.”

I thought she meant the poems I used to write and read at open mics. These were light, funny, self-deprecating poems that mostly poked fun at my perpetual relationship troubles. For instance, I once read a poem about a grow-a-boyfriend doll my friends bought me at a toy store. Another time, I read a poem about my extra pillows rising up against me, enraged that I never brought home a partner to use them. But these weren’t the poems Bernadette was talking about. Instead, she mentioned a poem I once wrote about whale falls — when a whale dies and falls to the bottom of the ocean and its body becomes a source of nutrition for other creatures. I still remember writing that poem. It was based on a Radiolab podcast that I found so beautiful I had to pause it so I could sit down and write. I remember researching whale falls and thinking how haunting and beautiful it was, that so much life could spring from death. There were tears in my eyes when I wrote that poem.

What happened to that girl? What happened to make her stop craving poetry? Certainly, the world didn’t turn off its poetry-making faucet — Radiolab still makes great podcasts, nature is still doing her thing — which means she must have learned to drink from a closer, less frightening spigot. It means that something was lost. And if she lost poetry, isn’t it possible she could also lose prose?

When I was twenty, a writer friend asked if he could read me a chapter from his novel in progress. He was older than me, in his thirties, and had won a big award for a short story several years before we met. Since winning the award, he’d been working on a novel and couldn’t shake the feeling that, over time, his writing had grown slower, staler. Less interesting.

“I’m going to read you two chapters,” he said, “and I want you to tell me, honestly, if one sounds exponentially lamer than the other.”

“Okay,” I agreed, understanding my purpose was to lie to him if necessary.

He began to read, first from the older chapter. He read with a quick, energetic cadence. His voice was alive, excited. As he read, he gesticulated and paused for dramatic effect. He gave in to the story.

When he started on the second chapter, the one he’d written more recently, something strange happened. The air in the room dropped 10 degrees. His rhythm slowed. His voice deepened. He rushed through the important sentences, practically pole-vaulting over the dialogue in which all the juicy stuff brewed. The writing was just as good, the story just as strong, but he didn’t believe in it. He pushed it onto the stage like a father ushering his meekest child into the public eye, thinking: Okay, here he is, don’t hurt him.

“All right,” he said, when he was finished. “Tell me the truth.” He looked at me, terrified.

“You want me to be honest?” I asked.


“I think you read the first one faster.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

He smiled — a smile filled with immense joy and not a small amount of relief. I remember feeling my own sense of relief that I did not have to lie to him. I also remember wondering, in that moment, whether I might one day feel the way he did — afraid that my writing had diminished or suffered because of age or circumstance. Afraid that all the tricks I’d once pulled as a kid would suddenly be out of my reach. Another fear: What if I lost my groove and didn’t even know it? What if I went marching out into the world, a literary emperor with no clothes? Or what if the opposite happened — what if I stopped going outside altogether for fear of making a fool of myself?

It’s not just the writing that changes; it’s the person. Someone on the outside might mistakenly think it’s not a chicken-and-egg situation. They might think that of course it’s the writer who changes first and the writing that changes only as a result. But it’s not that simple. The writer creates the writing, but the writing also creates the writer. It is circular, not linear.

Like most people, I spent my high school days in a blur of hyper-emotion. Among other self-destructive behaviors that now seem wildly melodramatic (burning the skin on my hand with a hot match, chain-smoking cigarettes, sneaking out in the middle of the night to lay on my driveway, crying at the stars), I would break pencils in half to cut the edge off my emotion, whatever it was: anger, sadness, jealousy. One time, I couldn’t locate a pencil, so I went for a ballpoint pen. It took me awhile, but eventually I snapped it in half. The plastic cut my palm and the ink burst out of the nib, covering my hands and shirt with wet blue liquid.

Now, in my late twenties, I can’t imagine feeling this emotional about anything, despite the fact that there is much more to be upset about now than there was then. It’s not that I don’t feel anger or sadness — I feel enraged every time I read the news, for instance — but it’s a different brand of anger, one that’s smaller and more defined. It’s a hundred-pound marble rather than a thousand-pound mountain. These days, I can slip the marble into my pocket and carry on. Back then, there was no escaping the mountain. It was where I lived, where I worked. I loved it there, but it wasn’t always safe.

And yet, it was on this mountain, among the hailstorms and avalanches and great parades of wildflowers, that I learned to write. Writing felt the same as snapping the pencil, smoking the cigarette. Instead of burning a heart-shaped scar into my hand, I could refocus my energy onto the page. It started off with poetry — poem after poem after poem — and eventually grew into essays and stories. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d started two novels. What did I think I’d do with these novels? I have no idea. But I wrote them as if someone important had given me a deadline.

When I got to college, I told the same writer friend who was working on his novel that I often felt so angry I could hardly contain it. That writing was the only thing that could calm me down.

“One day,” he told me, “you won’t feel so angry anymore.”

“That’s hard to believe,” I said, because it was. At this point, I was still living on the mountain. I’d never stepped foot on level ground.

“Trust me — everything will still suck in the same way, or be awesome in the same way, but you won’t care so much.”

I remember feeling very sad to think that one day I wouldn’t be angry, or elated, or even the kind of sad that sometimes sent me into the woods behind my house where I would just cry and cry, letting the darkness swallow me up. These moments were hard, but they were also precious. As a writer, it’s important to feel all the emotions, including the ugly ones. Just as a painter needs her blacks and grays, a writer needs to feel grief and jealousy, anger and remorse. If we don’t feel it, how can we write about it?

“What if I want to stay angry?” I asked.

He gave me a sad look, as if I’d missed the point. “Don’t be that kind of person,” he said. “Chaos may be good for writing, but it’s not your friend.”

Aside from the fear of decline, there are other dangers in the writer’s life. Technology is one — I often fear that the internet is making me dumber, less focused, less interesting. (If you want a book that will really terrify you, read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.) Outside pressure is another — this goes back to the question of audience, of who we write for and why.

A mentor once told me that success is one of the worst things that can happen to a writer, especially a young one. I was 25 when I won an award that meant my first book would come out. There was a brief lightning bolt of excitement, followed by a great yawn of fear — the what now? The what if I never write a good sentence again? The what if this is the high point and everything else is downhill? The only answer, of course, comes from the writing itself. It is not an answer at all, but a silencing of the questions.

A couple days ago, a friend and I swam in an ice-cold creek. “You can’t be sad when you’re in cold water!” she sang, the water moving quickly at our feet, making our bones ache, our skin grow numb. Before this, the day had been somewhat sleepy and hazy. Not a bad day at all, but a level one. In the water, the day took on texture. It buzzed and crackled. Writing is exactly this: It’s the cold water. The place you can visit when you need to either feel something or do something with how you feel, where the waters will shock your day into something brighter, more useful, more exhilarating. It is a place of safety: an altar, a chapel, a sanctuary.

This is, after all, the purpose of writing: not to succeed or fail, but to practice a way of living. A way of being. Writing is, in this way, the closest thing I know to religion. It forces me to be kinder, to think of others and how my actions affect them, to appreciate and honor this strange condition called life. In this way, I could no sooner fail at writing than a disciple could fail at prayer.

Perhaps the fear I feel — a fear all writers and artists must feel at some point — is just a natural questioning of my gods and goddesses. And in the end, like with any endeavor of the spirit, the only way out of this doubt is through faith and gratitude. Faith that the writing will always be there, and that I will always be willing and able to honor it. Gratitude that I get to experience the extreme pleasures of writing at all. It is a lesson I’m learning in my personal life as well. I’ve struggled with abandonment issues for most of my life and am now trying to learn — really learn — that not all men leave. That sometimes to anticipate a loved one’s departure only detracts from the time you spend with them. It is the same with writing. To worry about the decline is to distract from the gift of writing itself.

After rereading all of his own books, the late writer Philip Roth declared of his career: “I did the best I could with what I had.” At the end of my life, when I write the last sentence I’ll ever write, I can’t think of a better concluding judgment — to know I did the best with what I had, that I gave back to my writing as much as my writing gave to me. That despite the fear of getting worse or making a fool of myself, I kept going. That even though I knew it was going to be cold and a touch painful, I still entered the writing waters willingly, trusting I’d leave them feeling more alive, more human than when I entered.

Becky Mandelbaum

Written by

Author of The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals (forthcoming 2020) & Bad Kansas (winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award). Read more at beckymandelbaum.com.

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