On Writing (Sort Of)

When I say someone is a “serious writer,” I do it secretly during a private, one-sided conversation with myself. Because the public sharing of artistic output is often so randomly and arbitrarily judged, who really cares what I think?

Feb 10, 2016 at 10:43 am

When I say someone is a “serious writer,” I do it secretly during a private, one-sided conversation with myself.

Because the public sharing of artistic output is often so randomly and arbitrarily judged, who really cares what I think?

Answer: By and large my journalism students, and they are only just finding themselves when they encounter me, so it makes perfect sense they would care.

Usually, fundamentally, when I deem someone a serious writer, what I am saying about them is what I have lived with and said about my own self lo these 42 years into this craft: that a serious writer cannot do anything but write.

She may have — by necessity of cash flow or by family pressure — worked straight jobs.

I spent the summer of 1986 microfilming individual sheets inside boxes of medical records in a hot and windowless basement of a family-owned warehouse in Carthage.

This, before I took what was supposed to be a temporary, seasonal job at the downtown Lazarus as a retail floater — men’s sportswear to women’s furs to housewares — making $3.85 an hour to pay the $185 rent on a mouse-, roach- and flea-infested apartment in Clifton on Ohio Avenue.

I lived across the hallway from a man who had Tourette’s and, one night when his involuntary yelping and cursing became too much, I opened my door and pitched a cowboy boot at his door.

The thud scared him and shut him down but I never got that boot back.

Somewhere in Clifton a left-booted white man is limping around yelling obscenities at random people.

I began at 8 years old all the diary entries, snatches of sentences on little slips of paper and all the random words I needed to look up in the dictionary I’d jotted down in the margins of our little hometown newspaper (because I LOVED the way a Bic ink pen took to newsprint), and I simply continued all through my life.

I was, for the most part, left alone to do this.

I always had the headspace and the physical space to conjoin ideas with words and sentences. And when I did not, I made a time and a place, never using the lack of “a room of one’s own” as a valid reason not to write.

Throughout the years, as my autodidactism-strengthening and my literal need for traditional education all but disappeared, I realized all I could do was write.

And sometimes I felt like I was writing for my life, like if I didn’t get a thought on paper a particular way or even if I allowed one full day to pass without scrawling one word on a piece of paper, my heart would cease beating.I had been telling myself during those lean(er) years when no one was paying attention, publishing or printing me that if I did not document those days and times, then who in the world would get it down like me?Without realizing it, I was writing commentary.So when so many calls came years and years later, I did not flinch.I considered myself well-trained.I have never in my life been blocked.

I do not pretend to know what that is or what misery it lays on a writer.

However, I have been physically, mentally and spiritually beaten down, as I am now. Those three are the holy triumvirate of my creative source, and when they are all equally tapped, I know I am in trouble.

There was a time not very long ago when I recognized the onslaught of a head-on creative crash, so I moped around.

I got all inside my feelings.I talked to my close friends — teachers, writers mostly.They all suggested simple burn out; that I hadn’t run out of words (or ideas) but that I had been writing so long at full throttle without any real respites that I was just exhausted.I was worried.

Since I write sentences for financial survival and rarely, if ever, for myself, I wondered: When would I ever “be allowed” to cop that much-needed rest?

Would there ever be a time without real worry or when I could, like back in the day, write sentences solely for myself?

The answers came back to me: No, on all fronts.

Not only is it “no” because I must write, although I am also a good teacher. My writing life is set up in this way because what I write publicly is part of some mission I hadn’t planned for but must be carried out through me, regardless.

I think the weeks I spent musing and ruminating on the principles of “rest” was my rest, my moments to refuel.

Liberation is yet another gift writing has blessed me with, and that liberation has long been mine for the taking.


Because there was never a Plan B for me.

I never prepared for or prepared myself and my life for something else.

There is not anything else.

Not that I am too prideful to take another type of job — even something laborious. I have read that physically taxing jobs spare our intellectual might, and I agree. All the past (crap) jobs I have held left me absolutely energized to sit up and write all night long. So long, to paraphrase the playwright Tony Kushner, I was “writing at the end of myself” and had to write my way back.

I do not mind that I am now largely duty-bound to writing.

There are days I joke that I would much rather be getting a root canal and a colonoscopy than writing, but that is just so much drama-queen exaggeration.

I would always much rather be reading, learning new words, marvelling at the serious ones among us and trying, always trying to improve myself.

The papers of the late, great black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler are being publicly shared and prepared for exhibition.

One handwritten segment from the back cardbord cover of an early notebook lit up black Instagram and black Facebook last week.

In her own hand, Butler,  a young writer when she wrote it, proclaimed what she wanted to do with her life through writing. She expected to be published, to be educated, to help pay for the educations of other young writers, to take care of her mother by buying her a nice house and that she would stick to her guns until she’d accomplished these goals.

The message was in ink.

The ink ran out.

She returned in pencil, I think.

Tiring of that, she returned in fresh ink, writing down to the very tip of the right corner—literally off the page.

CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]