I’ve been a pretty idle writer this winter. Considering the only time I leave my room and brave the below zero temperatures and four foot high snowdrifts is to go to work, the cafeteria, or possibly the local coffee shop, you’d think I’d have written enough material for my first book by now. But somewhere in the middle of the seven thousand snowstorms that have hit northern Michigan, I lost my momentum.
For the first half of this school year, my life felt like one big manic, caffeine-fueled, essay writing session, curled up with my laptop amidst pillows and blankets in my dimly-lit bedroom. In between work shifts, four mile runs along the highway, and nights out with friends, I sat beneath the glow of my twinkly lights and worked hard to crank out enough solid material to prove that my Bachelor’s degree in music isn’t the only artistic thing about me. I wrote down phrases, portraits, and paragraphs. Little moments filled the pages of a notebook that I carried with me everywhere. I made lists of topics to explore, thoughts to flesh out. And somehow, all of that work seemed worthwhile and fulfilling. Writing and revising a bunch of essays about my small, run-of-the-mill midwestern life drove me nuts and yet it drove me at the same time. I felt like I was working toward something, like I was in the middle of a marathon and, while I wasn’t expecting to finish in record time or receive any sort of prize for my labors, I was exerting everything I had in order to get . . . well, somewhere.
Now I’m waiting. Waiting for someone somewhere to hear my voice and know that it has potential, that it can be molded and shaped into something better. My thirst for knowledge, for learning to refine my craft is greater than ever, but I’m at a standstill. I don’t know if anything will even come out of all of the work I put in this fall. So the only thing I can do is keep writing. I know that. But I can’t.
I haven’t added anything new to my notebooks in weeks. I haven’t crossed anything off my list of topics. My computer is full of documents only a few paragraphs long. My blog account has 17 unfinished drafts. I know this is part of the process, that not everything I write has to be publishable or great or even slightly good. But I’ve developed the gross habit of abandoning ship anytime the writing gets rough, or my ideas seem trite, or I can’t come up with a good synonym for a word I’ve already used too many times (thanks for nothing, Thesaurus.com). I’ve hit a nonfiction wall; I’m running out of things to say about myself and my experiences, because, when it comes down to it, I don’t see myself as a particularly interesting person.
I recently got the chance to see Lena Dunham, the creator of HBO’s Girls and one of my favorite writers, speak as part of Oberlin College’s convocation. (By “got the chance,” I really mean I found out she was speaking, requested tickets via mail, convinced one of my coworkers to come with me, drove 400 miles to Ohio on my day off for the event, then drove all the way back to Michigan the next day, but whatever. I swear I’m not a creepy stalker.) As someone who wants to make a living exploring the world of nonfiction, but who is relatively a (for lack of better word) dumbass when it comes to the “industry,” I found so much solace and inspiration within her words. At one point, she discussed the concept of doing things “for the story,” something she has explored using her Girls character Hannah, and something she herself has struggled with in her life as a writer. Ultimately though, she has found a way to work creatively using her own experiences and forgoing the notion that, as a privileged white girl, her stories aren’t interesting enough to tell. She writes what she knows, and even though what she knows isn’t always the most dramatic, it’s real and compelling and relatable.
And after all, isn’t that what art is, really? It’s something that people can connect to, something that exposes the universal commonalities about the human experience. I may not have tragic stories worthy of a memoir; my parents are still happily married, I got my degree from a nice private liberal arts school, I’ve always had a roof over my head and food in my fridge. I am, by all accounts, a boring person, but I am ready to take my boring and use it to my full advantage. I can write an entire essay about nearly having an anxiety attack while attempting to navigate Chicago without a GPS, or the time I got bangs on a whim, or my love affair with purple lipstick. I can use words to make seemingly uninteresting stories seem, well, interesting. Real. And that’s what I want to do. That’s what I have to do.
I know this isn’t a new concept. I know there are plenty of people who have made their living writing what they know. But it’s taken me awhile to let go of the nagging feeling that my introverted self needs to get out more, do more exciting things, and be in situations that will fuel my writing. Now I see that I do have stories to tell. I can strive for authenticity, both in my life and in my art. I can live my life the way it is, be the person I am, and write about that. I’ve already got the material, I just have to work my ass off to make it into something I’m proud of. In my opinion, that is the true test of an artist — working with what you’ve got to make something incredible. And yeah, I’ll probably still have unfinished drafts all over my desktop and essays that never turn into anything good, but that’s okay. I’m just going to be me and write me, because, in the end, that’s all I can do.