I am not Margaret Atwood: Pain and writing

Writing is hard, and I am not Margaret Atwood. Coming to terms with these tough realizations.

Writing is hard, because it has to be

This piece is not original.

By that, I don’t mean that it’s plagiarized. I mean that every writer has at some point wondered why they bother performing this excavation of their brains. Why we cast into the wind, trying to lure a line out from the depths; sometimes, maybe often, coming up empty. Many writers have wondered this, and about as many have written about it. It’s an easy go-to topic. You’re guaranteed commiseration, and can almost always write about the pain of trying, stumbling, faltering.

I’m sitting on my living room couch, drinking cups of coffee on a lazy-but-beautiful Sunday. Glasses on. Bra off. Hair tied. Ready for serious writing business.

It’s hard.

Sometimes ideas drift through the stratosphere of my mind, briefly winking with potential. I could write book reviews! I could write about cooking! I could write about my trip to Europe and mostly fill the post with photos! These are all formulaic pieces. It doesn’t particularly excite me when I know the structure and can hastily fill in the blanks. A Mad Libs style of writing.

I even regularly recycle words. My vocabulary has shrunken to include only a few evocative expressions. Scaffolding. Delightful. Veritable. Wee. Gorgeous. On a recurring spin cycle, rotating through posts on food, books, and monthly recaps. When I cash in on those words too many times in a single post, I flip to the thesaurus to say the same thing in a slightly new way. A rose by some other name, tweaked and pruned, will sound just different enough. I spend more time questioning if I used a semi-colon correctly (I usually don’t) than I do expanding the length of my lexicon.

I need to stretch myself, my craft, more. I feel like it was easier, when I worked for school newspapers. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and having to whip together weekly articles made me practice. I was forced to grind my ideas into a fine powder, add a binding agent, mould phrases into something cohesive and — at times — semi-readable. I know it wasn’t actually “easier.” I just had a paycheque hanging in the balance, so it was a waste of mental energy to acknowledge that writing is hard.

I see other writers, read their work, and imagine their words simply seep out of their consciousness and onto the page. There is no unfolding, laying out, and inspecting of their brains to find one more good piece. Just one more 500-word article, and then I can forget about the challenge of composition until my next existential crisis.

They’re talented, I think to myself. They don’t have to shout into the vast, echoing void of their minds, desperate for some dangling thread of a thought to grasp. I forget that many writers suffer from a form of self-doubt. Most of us have delusions of inferiority. It’s how we get better, how we self-criticize and eventually grow into quality — though still self-conscious — wordsmiths. You need that feeling of chagrin to become something more than a hack. If you’re entirely confident, never questioning the words you put to paper, you’re probably not very good.

My coffee’s growing cold. I feel too aware of the effort it takes to string together simple sentences. Too aware of how many times I’ve picked up the thesaurus, digging for some new, novel way to say “good.” I’ve been reading more in the last five months than I have in two years, but it’s only reminded me that I am not Margaret Atwood. That I am not Vladimir Nabokov, or Evelyn Lau, or Sylvia Plath. That sometimes my Instagram captions aren’t half-bad, but writing is more than a quick paragraph slapped together before hitting “share.”

Writing is a perpetual study in self-doubt, and it’s a study I’ve missed. I need to lean into the discomfort. To slowly, clumsily, uneasily ease my way back.

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