The Influence of Anxiety, Part Deux: Or If Not Writing, What?


A little over a week ago, I wrote a post about my recent bout with self doubt (maybe bad poetry is my real calling?), and since then have received some great encouragement from commenters.

One commenter, Richard Gilbert, sent me a link to Junot Diaz’s essay “Becoming a Writer” in O, The Oprah magazine, in which Diaz talks about the doubt and despair he went through when composing his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2008.

I had heard about Diaz’s essay in passing and had seen one quote frequently pop up:

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.

A very powerful statement. (I have to recommend this essay to any writer, whether you’re struggling with self doubt or not. It’s one of the most evocative essays about self doubt and the writing process I’ve ever read.) But the image that struck me most was this:

While I waited for September to come around, I spent long hours in my writing room, sprawled on the floor, with the list [of other professions Diaz might be qualified for]on my chest, waiting for the promise of those words to leak through the paper into me.

Diaz had gotten to the point of wondering whether or not he really was a writer after working on his novel for five years without success. He was planning to go back to school. He had made a list of professions he was qualified for or might be qualified for. Nothing suited him. And yet his future as a writer was in doubt. What else was there to do but to lie on the floor and look to the void for answers?

While my circumstances are different Diaz’s, I can picture myself with a list of options on my chest (I keep an unsatisfying list in my head) and I can see myself sprawled on the floor looking up to the void to waiting for an answer.

If not this, what?

Part of my anxiety is the dread of doing anything other than writing or editing. I’ve worked in such worlds as retail (a nightmarish experience that awakened me fully to Sartre’s “Hell — is other people”). And while ideally “a writer is a writer . . . when there is no hope,” I sink at the prospect of not writing professionally in a day job (no one seems to want me); I sink at the prospect of having to work outside of  professional writing.

And yet that Sartrean nightmare Reality demands I have an income. In my mind I lay on the floor, looking up, wondering, If not writing, what?

As far as my novel goes, I’ve set it aside, though an inkling of inspiration came to me Saturday after hearing a talk by Elizabeth Berg, who at one point addressed the conflict between the writing life and “real” life, one of the larger conflicts in my life at the moment. I may tinker with parts of the book. There may be some potential in it, yet.

But I’m still fumbling with self doubt. My writing has been sporadic — blog posts, journal entries — as I sprawl on the floor asking, What do I write? and If not writing, what?

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3 thoughts on “The Influence of Anxiety, Part Deux: Or If Not Writing, What?

  1. I’ve also struggled with these kind of questions. Maybe every writer does. In the end though, I always come back to writing, and if it’s something you think about this much (enough to write this post!) then you will too. I know that even if I end up in a day job doing something else, the writing still matters. Finding the balance between making a living and making a life is tough though. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
    By the way, I don’t recommend taking a year off from writing.

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