The Struggle Of Being A Writer Who Doesn’t Write

My name is Courtney and I am a recovering writer. I wrote my first short story back in first grade, then a full length one in fifth. I used to carry around a little yellow legal pad in the car, jotting down phrases and sentences I’d later connect to characters as my parents’ Toyota jolted across every pot hole. 

When I’d share these stories with my friends, they’d talk about them around the lunch table as if they were the prose that ignited their own love of books and far away lands, though my words were always etched in tragedy. A love lost to war or struggles of self-identity. A stillbirth. A death. Every story’s middle was always the same, tossed with tragedies my adolescent brain didn’t really understand, but the endings were always happy despite their miserable, melancholy centers.

And then I encountered actual tragedy and instead of fueling me and my creative ways, it stifled me. I’m stifled. And I can’t find the way out. 

It started slowly at first, a few weeks after my mom died. Writing had always been my solace, but over time I became disenchanted with writing about what her face looked like in a casket. Soft pallid lips. Dewy pallid skin. Ice cold to the touch. 

Instead of writing about the very image that made it hard to sleep at night, I tried my hand at painting. I wasn’t any good. But at least it was a creative outlet. At least it gave the ends of my fingertips something to grab onto. 

When I decided to jump back into it, I wrote about what that loss was like. Eventually, I sprinkled in some lighter content like how to cope with my impending 30s and the little progress I had to show for it. But the words still didn’t come as easily to me as they once did. In yesteryear, I used to wake up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed every Sunday morning and plop down into my writer’s chair with a cup of coffee that lingered on my breath. I’d write about what I saw that week. I’d write about what made me angry, or what kind of injustice I felt I’d faced. 

Sometimes those stories were like a flowchart, easily spilling out my mouth and onto the page, dripping with poetic lines and thought experiments that made you genuinely think, “Hey, maybe that girl has got a point.” 

I used to get Facebook messages and Instagram messages and fan mail to an AOL address I already assigned to my first born thanking me for…writing? It was—and is—such a strange concept, thanking someone for simply saying what’s in their head. But I loved it. I soaked it up like a sponge does dirty dish water. I could bathe in their words. I found a home in their appreciation. 

But the appreciation dried up, as these things always do. And that was fine, because the adulation didn’t spark me anymore. My mom was dead. My dad was sick. And my life would never turn out the way I planned it on my vision board. 

My writing stopped over the course of my father’s illness because like my dead mom prior, all I wanted to talk about was how angry I was. And who wants to read that? This isn’t Myspace or Tumblr. My anger didn’t fuel good ideas or make fans want to reach out. Instead, I looked—and felt—like a whiny teenager, angry that her parents sent her to bed without supper. Not that my parents ever did that. But they could have. That was weirdly a punishment us ‘90s kids heard now and again. 

I didn’t think anyone would want to read about what it was like listening to my dad empty his colostomy bag on my couch. Or what it was like to hear him talk about dying every morning before he dropped me off from work. People didn’t want to read that because people couldn’t relate to it. Not here on Collective World. Not with my friends. Not even with my co-workers. People in their late 20s and early 30s aren’t familiar with what it’s like to watch their father slowly decay like he’s an extra in the Walking Dead

They don’t know what it’s like to watch their parents die or what the machines sound like as they record the process of their heart and liver turning into swiss cheese. They don’t know what it’s like to close out someone’s estate or handle probate, and even if they do, why in the world would they want to read about it? I live it and I don’t even want to read about someone else’s journey. 

Truth be told (though I hate that cliche phrase), thinking that way was my biggest downfall because Courtney from six years ago—the one who woke up eager to record the world—didn’t care what people wanted to read. That girl wrote what she wanted to write. Because at the end of the day, there was always someone who could relate to it. 

My biggest downfall as a recovering writer is that all that tragedy—the tragedy that I used to include in every story—kind of broke me. I’m very much broken, even now as I write this because I’m forcing myself to jot the words down. All week I’ve been sick. Throwing up. Headache. Insomnia. All week I’ve been desperate to get back to the version of myself that’s well. 

Yet today’s that day and instead of feeling grateful that I can sit down and work on freelance or clean my house and enjoy the first cup of coffee I’ve had in over a week, I feel miserable. Downtrodden. Depressed. Because despite my mini-vacation, this isn’t the life I want to lead. 

I don’t want to be back in my one-bedroom apartment with the weird layout and white walls I’m too scared to paint because one day I’m eventually going to move. I don’t want to go back to work where I don’t feel emotionally stimulated. I don’t want to be 60 lbs overweight. I don’t want to feign interest in being stuck at home, though yesterday I was obsessed with the notion. 

And above it all, I don’t want to be the girl with the dead parents, unable to move because I’m still waiting for my dad’s creditors to get back to me. Above it all, I don’t want to be the girl who constantly feels like she’s standing behind saran-wrapped walls she’s unable to break. Above it all, I don’t want to be the girl who’s too scared to drive her car or walk into a store herself because her anxiety has climbed to an unfathomable degree in the midst of all these tragedies. 

If I were to write a character like me, I’d point out that she has depression. But I’d move her forward, like a chess piece on the board, with her sights aimed at reaching the end of the game without any takedowns. She’d force herself to write on Sunday mornings and she’d force herself to get dressed. She’d say yes to experiences that make her feel uncomfortable until one day being human didn’t feel so foreign.

By the time she reached the end of the book, her tragedies wouldn’t define her or hold her back. But I’m not a teenager anymore, wistful about life’s miserable experiences. I’m me. And I’ve seen my mom’s dead body in a casket. I’ve seen my dad take his last breath. Like self-projection, I’ve seen myself fall into my husband’s arms at my mother’s funeral, making a noise I’d only ever heard in horror films. Help me…you’re my only hope (she says to no one who can hear her). 

I’ve seen what’s on the other side of the wave and that the cliches of picking yourself back up or to change the way you’re thinking about it only make so much of a dent. I know what I need is time. Time to heal. Time to recover. Time to be sad and struggle sleeping as I ruminate over every terrible encounter I’ve had since birth. I need time to cringe at my mistakes. 

Sometimes I think it’s possible to go back to the writer I was before I turned into this. Sometimes it even feels possible, too. 

But like the turning of a page, this story is only at its middle. And as I recover from the words I’ve lost and the spark that’s quickly burnt out, perhaps the stories I once wrote way back when life was good are the catalyst to getting back to the writer I want to be. 

Who knows, maybe someone out there will relate to this. Maybe it’ll serve as a reminder that I’m not alone, nor was I ever.