For the first time in seventeen years—since I began writing books in my late twenties when I undertook advanced studies and completed my MFA—I found, in the fall of last year, that I no longer felt the urge to write anything. It was if for seventeen years I had been, without knowing it, on a moving vehicle. And I couldn’t tell how fast it moved, much as when we are on a train or in a car and looking out the window we cannot determine our speed, we only know that we are in fact going: the scenery outside the window changes, the light of the day wanes. In this manner I wrote books for many years, one after the other, they “came” to me, whether about historical subjects I felt deserved telling for they had been ignored or elided, such as the Armenian genocide which my grandparents had survived, or the genocide of the Ixil-Maya in Guatemala in the 1980s which the US Government both indirectly and directly supported, or the violence happening now to Central Americans as they cross Mexico on their way to the US. In the intervening years, I published five books and I wrote some books for which I cannot yet find publishers. But still, this train which I was on, on it without knowing it I might add—and it is for this reason I have never understood writer’s “block” as it is called—because, as I often tell my students, there is no paucity of material, just like there is no paucity of sunlight. There are no blocks to writing, I tell them, there is the work you are here to do, there are you obsessions, there is your path. Writing is like the tides: it goes out, but it always comes back in, then it goes out again, with regularity. And when it is out, don’t worry, don’t panic, I often say—read, take walks, build the room in your mind where your imagination may take flight, seek inspiration in art, your life, travel, other books, the woods.
But last year, I didn’t write for months. In the days that passed, I did, however, begin to read more. Mostly I found that I wanted to read in the area of quantum mechanics and cosmology, trying to understand how Newton’s laws of physics which apply to the world as know it, fall apart at the subatomic level where things can be both this and that, so that, as you know I’m sure, an electron is both a particle and a wave, and probably a particle only when someone is looking at it. From there I started reading about alternate universes, a holographic universe, and somehow I was led back to the Upanishads, to Ibn Arabi, to Heraclitus, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and his archetypes and, well, none of this was helping my novel, The Second Woman, which I’d try and work on and get nowhere with. I couldn’t find the entry point. Time passed. My “low tide” of not-working increased in duration. During this period I became increasingly disheartened. Why write another book? This thought and others, equally negative, filled my mind. And while I knew that books had saved and resaved my life, beginning in my childhood, were the things which consoled and inspired and made me happy, probably more than anything else beyond the humans I loved, and the wild places, there was still in me some kind of intersection of what I guess I’d call depression and a crisis of confidence: I wanted to read, but I didn’t, finally, feel like I had anything any longer to say.
The ego does what it does. Says things like, “Who do I think I am?” or “I don’t have anything to contribute.” And quite some time ago I realized that the work is bigger than me, it’s bigger than all of us—it comes from a mysterious and, I would say, sacred part of the human experience. That, in fact, it is not mine to judge, but only to do with all of my energy, intellect, and imagination. The act of writing, just like works of art and books themselves, is, in some sense, as I have come to think of it, an expression of love. The world is always receptive to and in need of this kind of service: more love, more light.
Things eventually shifted, the worst of my fall crisis has now abated, and I am writing again. And all of the books and papers I read in the fall are, not surprisingly because that is how these things work, having a large influence on the novel. I still don’t know much, I’m still in the unknown, but I found a way in to the work. And what got me going, finally, was a small, silly and vital thing: a bet with a writer friend: a pledge to write a paragraph each day for one week no matter what, in other words, no matter what I thought or how I felt. And that week has now turned into several months. A lesson here on how dailyness, structure, deadlines, doing is a huge part of us getting our work done—sitting in our chairs. Because the answers don’t come from outside, as you already know, for the writer the answers come to us, perhaps not even as answers, but inklings and obsessions, and they come in solitude, from our deep innermost feelings.
I opened up Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet in January, a small book which has been good company over these many years, and he reminded me in it, and I remind you, of the Yes in us to create—perhaps that is the best way I can speak to you of urgency. Sometimes, when the tide has gone out, or in my case the train stopped, we think the Yes has gone. But I realize now I wasn’t asking the right question, which wasn’t: will I write a good book? Or: will I be able to sell it? Or: will anyone care to read it? Or even: what do I have to say? The only question is this: must I create? And even in my most fallow periods, the answer rises so strongly in me that the doubt goes in the asking, because only Yes rises from it.