Why I Write (or, Why I Can’t Speak)

In her New York Times essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion brings up a valid yet contradicting point that epitomizes my very own existence as a writer:

“Until I wrote these lines I had no character called ‘Victor’ in mind: the necessity for mentioning a name, and the name ‘Victor,’ occurred to me as I wrote the sentence. . . . Had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

That sensation of not knowing what you’re writing towards, yet learning the answer that completes the half-formed sentence with just as much immediacy while the more self-conscious part of your brain is still stuck in the act of solving the problem is a thrill that I’ve come to embrace with reluctant passion over time. It is why I contradict myself on a daily basis, why my writing desk behaves likes a Schrödinger’s Sisyphus. I both am and am not writing, every second that I sit here determining what word should come next. With every pause before I begin, I unwillingly sit with the possibility of whether I will write towards the very thing I have an inkling of floating about in my head; or if I will shed the heavy skin that is my insecurity and write with reckless abandon; or if—and these days are the worst of them all—I will stare at the blinking cursor as minutes and hours pass, or at the inkblot where the tip of my pen has been poised on the page, its stain blooming with pause that will soon take the shape of desertion. One of these possibilities will unfold in the span of a day, but only I have the ability to make any of these possibilities happen.

Didion indicates that the reason why she writes is to seek out the answers even as she is writing them. This is—or perhaps, was—the very bane of my existence. Prior to my MFA, I was adamant about not speaking until I was certain in what I was going to say. I had to plan my sentences out to the very minute letter, and if I so much as couldn’t get the grammatical structure correct in my head, I would refrain from contributing to the conversation.

This was an easy feat to get away with in middle and high school, where I could easily make up for my silent engagement in class with evocative written essays during final exams or when I’d pass my written French exam with superlative colors yet was encouraged to do a bit more work next year to address my lackluster oral exam results. But in college, participation mattered. In a room full of 100 students in elementary astronomy? Please raise your hand and contribute to the class discussion once a week. Enrolled in a focused inquiry class with 20 students in a small room with no windows, where 60% of your grade depends on your written skills? Don’t forget that not participating at all in the semester would dock you a whole letter grade. That after-hours cinema club you had to attend on Wednesday nights in order to understand the nuance of 3-hour-long Eurocentric expressionist films and subliminal Soviet propaganda? You can’t leave the studio until you voice one comment that relates to the critical discussion of the evening. Participation in a verbal sense meant the world in my early twenties, but I was still unable to break out of the gate with my own language.

It’s not that English was foreign to me—it’s that I have a wealth of psychological insecurity that render me incapable of getting it quite right. I blame my three-year trial run in my elementary school spelling bee for my current conditioning for perfection. I was eager to move up in regional spelling bee championships, but would clam up in the final four and spell words like “conqueror” and “pococurante” slightly wrong while I winced as others advanced with words I spelled without fail under my breath like “meteorologist” and “triskaidekaphobia.” I blame my middle school self for becoming the class’ “grammar police” just because I was one of select few in the room whose favorite time of the day was when we took out our grammar workbooks and were instructed to teach ourselves from the lesson guides and complete the exercises before dismissing ourselves for recess, because every time, I would always be the first to finish, the first to grab whatever book I brought from home and read on the swings while I waited for the rest of the class to one by one populate the playground. I blamed—which now, in my less-jaded view of the past, has evolved into a deep and caring love—my mother for bringing me up in a household that spoke in her English, because that was the only way we could all universally understand each other, and it’s taken me years to realize that no amount of American conditioning could break me out of the meandering logic of my mother’s hybridized sentence structure. And finally, in college, I blame the guy I fell in love with who, over time and careful manipulation, robbed me of my ability to trust myself to speak.

So, how did I end up in an MFA program for creative writing, where you not only have to write in order to make sense of meaning, but you also have to communicate your craft verbally as a teacher’s assistant, as a writing tutor, as a peer in a cohort with other working writers? Because, despite my fear of communication, of speaking and writing and rewriting coherently enough to pass as Englishly fluent, I still feel as if, in the process of getting these words down, I’m one step closer to figuring out the next best meaning.