It has been a spell.
I’d fooled myself into thinking it hadn’t been that long, because dazzling, humbling news had been coming in. An essay of mine (my first published) went up on The Rumpus. Ploughshares had named me one of two finalists for their Emerging Writer’s award. And most recently, Indiana Review informed me that a poem of mine won its 2014 Half-K Prize. All of these things are nothing other than wonderful. But they collectively served as a kind of sunblock to shield me from the burn:
Before Wednesday of this past week, I hadn’t finished a piece of writing since about mid-August. Before Wednesday of this past week, there were 13 unfinished poems in my Dropbox folder called “Unfinished.”
Now, though, there are twelve. I’d actually been contemplating a new blog post, jotting down notes, scanning old fragments for post ideas, when I selected my Unfinished folder and saw that it had been more than a month since I’d even opened up a poem-in-the-works. I was in the midst of feeling the exultation of being celebrated for my writing, all while I wasn’t writing.
Needless to say, it felt grim. I’ve made it clear in the past that I loathe writing advice like “write every day.” For me, it sets up both an expectation that only serves to create a daily opportunity for feeling like a failure, & also the unreasonable sense that If you build it every day, it will come.
BUT, I’m also reminded of Roxane Gay’s caveat to her own similar distaste for all the varied ‘Writer’s Rules’ that abound: “You don’t have to write every day to be a good writer, but you can’t not write every day.” And that is what I had been doing: not writing every day. It can be its own form of depression, an absence that goes unnoticed until something sparks again, & the fuller sense of how long it’s been becomes present, like a photograph of yourself you find on your phone that reminds you of how different you looked back then.
There is both rhyme & reason for my dry spell—it’s no topic to reveal here, but I’m aware of it, at least. It doesn’t make it less worrisome, doesn’t make the looming ghost of won’t ever write again any less present. But it has forced me to try to develop some new tools to help me control my habits—the writing ones & the emotional ones—a bit better. The unfinished work of me.
It is dangerous, but so compelling sometimes, to treat people as ideas of themselves. To leave them unfinished, unresolved. I don’t like to title relationships with people, but sometimes people can become only titles. Not quite one-dimensional in and of themselves, but inhabiting only one dimension of my life.
Months ago, I entered someone’s number into my phone as “C&O Ted ” (C&O is the name of my
favorite bar, & where I met this person). It’s not that I continued to see him without learning his last name—I know his full name, & my associations with him went beyond that evening & that bar—but I never changed the entry in my phone. I think part of me wanted to confine him to an unfinished idea of the night we met. I hold him there, I think because I like the specific version of myself I was during the time we spent together. C&O Ted is his title, but is it a title if what’s attached to it isn’t finished?
Writers often talk about a piece “never being finished,” & there’s some truth to that. But there’s a difference between “unfinished” & “not yet finished.” When does the unfinished quality of something become its own end, its own form of completion? How do you know when something—or someone—should stay unresolved, undeliverable, living out its days in some dead letter office, where longing goes when it has nowhere to go?
I still have a fondness for cassettes. Though I’ve been trying to purge my belongings down to a less-anxiety-inducing size & emotional stature, I haven’t been able to relinquish tapes or my old tape deck to the scrap heap. I can’t throw away cassettes, & my dad can’t throw away broken electronics. My dad is an engineer, & also one of those “can build/fix anything” types of people who just don’t seem to exist anymore. He was also raised during a time when 1) goods were designed to be fixed, rather than replaced & 2) you didn’t throw away anything, because it wasn’t so easy just to go out & get a new one.
Recently, I visited my parents’ house & went looking for something in my dad’s workshop—an extension cord, something like that. Back behind his workbench, I found this:
There was a tape deck or two nearby, as well. He really never gives up, even when the technology is nearly obsolete. There’s always a way, a drive to try to go back & breathe new life into the things we’ve cared about, cared for. I guess I know where I get it from now.
I had 13 titles, mostly, is what I had. Some of them carried notes on what that particular poem might be, might become, an image, some words I knew belonged inside somewhere. But mostly they were simply just titles. Looking at them, all I could think was: too many cooks, not enough kitchen. And I was so hungry.
Filled with that particular writer-shame, I opened one of the docs that was nothing but title. And even beyond that, it was a title I’d written 15 years ago. It was the Unfinished poem. It was originally a title I’d sent to another poet-friend/affair-ish involvement at the time, told him he should write it (my title was a kind of echolalia of one of his own titles, a poem of his that remains one of my favorites).
But he didn’t write it, nor did I really expect him to. The suggestion itself was more flirtation than assignment or gift. And yet, for so long, I felt as though I’d given the idea away—that it was no longer mine, even though it was no one else’s either. I tucked it away like a bar napkin with a phone number on it. A souvenir. A letter sent & never delivered.
Until last week. I think a lot about what’s mine—what’s mine to write, what’s mine to feel. The title had been mine all along; I was the one who wanted to write the piece in the first place, & although it took this long to find the confidence to know that, I found it. I wrote it. A letter I sent to myself, delivered 15 years later.
This slow migration back to writing has been one not just of product, but of process. I didn’t feel like a fraud when I first started writing back in college & then grad school, but I often feel that way now—about both my current & my younger self. I had zero sense back then of just how unfinished I was, as a writer, as a person. I have a better sense of that now, but when every new step feels like a comeback, it feels impossible not to question whether it’s really happening, or whether it even should happen at all.
One poem at a time. Each distance next to the other. The technology may change, the titles may generate different ideas depending on how long it takes me to finally confront them, the characters might be re-cast or reprise their roles, the poems might or will get done, but the writing stays attractively, seductively unfinished.
 Ted is not his real name, although C&O is the real name of the bar. Charlottesville is a small enough town that using his real name would be like the social equivalent of a FERPA violation.