Written as a keynote for the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, August 2020
I’m going to get right to it: why write, anyway? What’s the point when we are dying? This is the only starting point I can imagine, because this is how writers seem to have begun the pandemic, talking about this. We wanted to process things on the page but we didn’t want to publish in haste. Or our forms didn’t fit. Or we were sick, or trying not to be; we were homeschooling or homeschooled or we were the teachers; we didn’t know how to make essays when reality seemed unfactcheckable or apocalyptic novelesque, our collective and individual plot struck by the most heavy-handed of deus ex machinas.
From the outset, I want to tell you that I cannot answer a question like, Why do we write? I can’t even answer the question, Why do I write? Nobody ever asks me why I think. When people ask me why I write, I sometimes say, at first it was to become famous, and now it’s because it makes me my money. These things aren’t lies, but they’re incomplete.
I can’t tell you why you write—none of my business. I can give you some answers you can use when someone asks, if that’s what you want: you can say you enjoy the craft, or you like to help people feel less alone. You can say you like to have made something. You can say it’s for revenge, and people will maybe think that’s interesting. They will at least want to know what you’re avenging, and so then you can change the subject from why you, if you’re anything like me, periodically enter a weird brownout state and come out intensely triggered by memories your active mind has been trying to suppress, with thousands of words you don’t really remember writing, or at least, you don’t remember reasoning out one sentence to another.
I’m going to entertain the question anyway, even if I can’t answer it. Why write, anyway? To be more specific, this either means, Why DO we write or Why SHOULD we write, which I think are different questions. And having no good answer to the question is not the same as having no reason. But I think now is a great time for anyone who asks themselves why they write, searches their soul, and finds no reason worth keeping, to let it go. But, in my opinion, the soul is the only arbiter of the worthwhileness of writing. Nobody else’s criteria matter.
But even if we know why we write, that doesn’t mean we know how to do it right now. Under these conditions: this fear and futility and fog.
Anyway, welcome to my keynote. It’s hard not to open an online thing that was supposed to be an in-person thing without an acknowledgment that this is not what we thought we would be doing. We thought we would be together. We thought we would not fear death. Not this kind of death, anyway. Sorry—a keynote should probably not begin with death, but this is who I am, and as the person brought in to strike the key note of the week, I must begin by saying that things are different from what we expected, but I must also stay there, because this is the note struck over and over by my mind as it turns over the question of how to go on. Not just now. We are always on one cliff or another, looking down or not looking down into this chasm of what we expect will happen next, or what we expected to happen that did not.
Here’s a lesson I refused to learn until I had no other choice: our expectations make us miserable and they make us happy. They frustrate us when we don’t get what we dreamed of and they offer us optimism when we have that chance to dream. I used to say I chose nonfiction over fiction because I have no imagination, but I’ve come to realize that’s not true at all: I make plots all the time, when I make my life into narrative and set the endpoint beyond the present. I imagine the resolution I want and the crisis I fear.
The particular challenge of this time, for me, is that all my narrative tools for living have no utility when the future is unimaginable—a total void. But I have been here before: not in a pandemic, but in a hopeless situation, and maybe that is why I’m okay with it. There have been times when I was utterly without hope, the desire or expectation for certain things to happen.
Before I continue, I must also say: I will be talking about myself in this keynote, because I’m not comfortable telling you what to do, think, or feel, and also because, as I always tell my nonfiction students, the best route to the universal is through the intensely personal. Reaching for sweeping statements at the end of an essay to tell the reader it’s their story, too, can just about kill the intimacy created by offering a look into an individual interior. So I will trust that if you hear me and hear my pain, you may hear a little of your own. That’s how it works for me, anyway: I’m always looking for a narrative to borrow until I’ve worked out my own.
So back to me and my feelings and the questions I want to answer for myself in front of you today: Why even bother to write when there’s this death among us? Does writing even matter?
I don’t know how to give the permission needed to write. It’s not mine to give. I can only tell you about my own story:
In 2007, I was freshly graduated from college and had just moved across the country and enrolled in an MFA program. The preceding two and a half years had been unfathomably hard—as hard as I could expect any two years to be, and so I thought that would be the worst of it: violence, alcoholism that may have killed a nonessential organ before I could legally drink, and the beginning of a decade of body-wrecking psych meds wrongly prescribed because of a misdiagnosis.
I entered grad school as a twenty-two-year-old fiction writer, telling stories about anybody else, because nothing interesting had ever happened to me—nothing presidential, Olympian, or famed. Then, in grad school, I learned that thinking itself was an event, and I had done a ton of that, an entire autobiography’s worth of thought words every single night. And so I began to write a memoir. I wish I could tell you anything about my process, but I only remember meaningless things like my thrift store desk that was always spotted with cigarette ash and stacked with half-empty boxes of Russell Stover’s Assorted Creams. I remember waking up and finding bowls of milk and with a floating Cheerio or two on the nightstand, my lighter and Parliaments out on the balcony, like I’d been visited by a smoking ghost. I don’t remember what it felt like, or what I thought, but I can see it all clearly in the timeline: sometime after I began writing an essay about the violence, there was more violence, and then there was even more. From the very beginning of my work in essays, I understood my writing process to not be about recounting so much as it was about making meaning where there was none. And so all of a sudden, I had to write about a violation that was still incomprehensible, because the first wound had no meaning anymore without those that followed.
This, I think, is the origin story of my writer self: though I did show my work to others at first, that soon stopped, and I committed to a process of writing entirely alone. There were things I needed to work out that nobody was equipped to process with me: not my friends, not my therapist. There was only the isolation I built myself, a sealed space in which I could make narrative out of jagged shards of chaos.
I keep trying to tell my students that they don’t have to write about the worst thing that ever happened to them, but I don’t think I’m very convincing, maybe because I prefer to write about the worst things that ever happened to me. I said I didn’t want to speak in the universal, but now I’m overexposed, and I’m being TMI again, and anyway, the key note I want to strike is this: We are all in pain, aren’t we? We can’t deny that evil is all around us, can we? And why write if we don’t have a problem inside us that needs solving?
I think if you didn’t know why you should bother writing, you wouldn’t be here right now, because pointless things have been falling away as we figure out which things are for our survival. Anyway, I think people who are asking about why we bother writing now are trying to justify it to themselves, maybe.
So that brings me to what I suspect, from talking to the writers I’ve been talking to this past month and summer and year and lifetime, you may be wondering about, after these beautiful days of talking and thinking about writing: how to make sure it all works out. How to make the craft choices that will lead a publisher to want to buy the book. How to avoid disappointment, or worse.
Right? For all that effort and processing and, especially, all that vulnerability, most of us want something to show for it, something with a spine and a pretty cover and a happy audience. A beautiful book that can be held and shelved is a good reward for the toil.
I wish I could tell you how to craft a sure bet in the literary marketplace, but the more I learn, the less I know that I know. The #publishingpaidme tweets created an unmistakable illustration of publishers’ dramatic and appalling underinvestment in Black writers’ books. BIPOC writers have been sharing stories of industry neglect and disrespect evidenced by a preference for fictions of us made by those who aren’t us. I used to believe it was possible to improve one’s odds of publication by writing something people wanted, but I’ve had enough infuriating experiences to believe that there is no sentence beautiful enough and no form accessibly innovative enough to break through biases, because I simply can’t fix the patterns a hateful system etched onto someone else’s mind.
You can’t do anything about what a reader—an editor included—brings to your work, and you can’t make the industry ready for your book by the time you show up with your brilliant manuscript, a product of a mind from a place and a people and a time and a situation. I can’t believe I’m about to say something as corny as what I’m about to say, but all you can control is what you create and the narrative you tell yourself about it.
I’m aware that what I just said is not only corny, it’s also rude. It’s one thing to put years of your life into crafting the most beautiful thing you have in you, and sometimes retraumatizing yourself in the process. It’s another thing entirely to do it without believing there’s publication on the other side. But that is exactly what I did, and it’s the one thing I’ve done in my career that I can really truly strongly across the board recommend.
Back up, though: the origin story of my writer self had its inciting incident much, much earlier than the one I identified a few minutes ago. Age fifteen or so, I was writing poems inspired by photocopies from the New Yorker that my creative writing teacher gave me. She said mine were good enough to submit; I didn’t know what that meant. She said we would do it together.
I got so many rejections. I got rejected from the summer arts academy in my state, and I talked to a professional poet who taught in the program, and he told me I was a good high school poet but not a good poet, right? Right. I still thought I could fight for that goodness if I read enough New Yorker poems and got just one acceptance from a literary magazine. There used to be a journal that would offer a free subscription to any serious writer who submitted–I was a DEAD SERIOUS writer, and I mean that, and I knew it. When the rejection slip came back, it had yes/no checkboxes for “free subscription,” with NO checked for me.
I thought, okay, if I’m not good enough, why bother? I quit for a while, until I started writing fiction, which I thought I could still be good at. I was mostly rejected from MFA programs and mostly unpublished. In grad school, when I started writing essays, I was feeling like I was probably not going to make it as a writer. I was mediocre, and seriousness and dedication had never made me otherwise. So I wrote what I needed to write: essays about my trauma, in forms that I had never seen in books published by the big houses. I loved what I was writing; it felt like creating and solving puzzles all at once. I fully expected the work to get rejected everywhere and it did.
I needed the rejection—not just because it toughened me up (though I guess it did) but also to force me to move on from the idea that writing was successful if somebody else liked it. I am a terrible people-pleaser, and getting the essays from my first book rejected more than a hundred times in total, and then having that book rejected or ignored by 67 agents and 43 editors, forced me to find a better reason to write than affirmation. Getting solicited by the editors of a journal and then having them reject an essay from my book manuscript on the grounds that I was basically a hack and a David Foster Wallace ripoff—that’s the kind of thing that pushed me in anger to create a sealed chamber in which my writing and I lived, where we made the rules, where I alone decided what was good based on my definition built from the work of other writers I wallpapered all over my mental interior.
And that brings us to the present. I have spent something like eight years working mostly alone, building a book according to my specifications, trusting my gut and my heart instead of the head I keep filling with chatter about what will sell. My writing would still be dull and competent but not totally interesting if I wasn’t forced to find what I needed.
After I really let myself see what had happened to me, the violence and wrecking, and when the denial no longer held, I knew I could either let the knowledge break me or I could be the meaning-maker with absolute power over the narrative: every sentence, every detail included or left out, every insight. When my work was rejected so resoundingly that I thought it would never make it into print, I knew I had two choices: to stop writing or to keep writing. Which were the exact same choices I’d always had.
So these are your choices, too. I mean this in the day-to-day sense, choosing to write today or to do something else, and I also mean that you can quit anytime you want and never resume. They are both fine choices, with no inherent value attached. No matter what degrees you’ve gotten, what you’ve published, or what social circles you’ve settled into, as long as you don’t owe a publisher a book they paid you for or whatever, you can stop writing if you want to. I want to make the case, though, for not quitting writing altogether, even if you don’t want to write today or this week or this summer or this year. I’ve taken those breaks, and I recommend them, if you need them.
Supposedly, the pandemic is giving us all this free time, though mine hasn’t gotten here yet. It’s forcing (or, in my case, allowing) some of us to be alone or relatively so, and this strikes me as an opportunity, because being alone with your work for as long as you can, without anyone to tell you whether you’re failing or a genius, without deadlines or the incentive of the shareable link, you have nowhere to look but the page and the shapes your insides make on it.
Stare into your work until you recognize it more as an annex of your own mind than a room in someone else’s house. By that I mean, don’t rush it out into the world until it is a world all its own. Don’t workshop pieces before you’re ready to let someone else in. Don’t rush to publish. Don’t overthink what’s selling or how to make a platform or when to query for a project you haven’t finished. Don’t ask someone to tell you how to fix your work if you haven’t spent some time dismantling and reassembling it on your own. I’m being prescriptive here, just this once, because I want to emphasize that I don’t think you should be looking for a prescription for your work if you don’t know whether it’s even sick. What do you want it to do? How do you want the reader to feel, and why? What kind of life do you want it to have?
At a time when it’s very hard to imagine the future, it’s also very hard to put your trust in the writing process—to believe that even though you can’t see something whole at the outset, you can begin with hope. And even if you can’t see the end of revisions after the first draft, you know you will find some help to get there. That’s all very hard right now when many of us have to suspend our imaginative processes that allow us to build our futures and work and wait for them.
Why write right now? The only answer I have is that, at times like now, writing, once you really find the form that was meant for you, could be one of the things that can keep you whole. I can gesture toward what writing does for me: it used to be the only space safe enough for me to be vulnerable. It’s still my favorite way of approaching the incomprehensible.
Maybe you can’t write at all right now, or read. And I get it. How can we carry on as though things are normal?
I hate to tell you, but this is normal. This is what the world is: it is the constant flux of hoping and giving up hope and hoping again. We ask too much and too little of our writing. It has to change everything or be a bestseller. But everything is already changed, and meaning will outlive money.
Why write? The only way I’ve ever been able to do it is to consider the question unanswerable. And those questions are the best kind. A pocket of space follows the question mark that looks back at what it punctuates. Some questions are too hard to answer before the space closes and a new sentence begins. This is the treasure X I mark on the map of a narrative: the place where the impossible object of a story opens and opens and opens until there’s treasure all around, treasure everywhere, treasure pushing past every horizon.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of White Magic, My Body Is a Book of Rules, and Starvation Mode. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She’s a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship recipient, a Creative Capital awardee, and an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.