| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life Writing Will Not Save Us
There is true, gut-wrenching grief in learning that sometimes even our wildest dreams aren’t enough to save, heal, or absolve us.
As a child, I got on my knees and folded my hands in a room with beige walls and a dirty, blood-red carpet. I lied to a balding man in a white robe. I told him about things I hadn’t done: I was mean to my brother, tattled on a classmate, ignored a friend at recess. My real sins, the ones I could not say, were too acidic for my tongue. Too dark, too queer, too telling. But I spun them around in my mind in that room and hoped that when he absolved me for my fake sins it would smother my real ones too.
Maybe it was my fault, then, that I was never truly forgiven, that no one came to save me from the things that would be done to me. From the things I would do. Did He ever come to save you?
What a thing to be Catholic: born damned just to fall to our knees, again and again, begging for salvation, reaching for an all-loving-if-you’re-perfect God. Save me, love me, judge me. Say I’m good and worthy. Bring me home, let me rest.
I lost that God in my teenage years (or, I sheepishly wandered; or, I fucking ran), but there were others to chase and lose: sports championships, romantic love, pop bands, journalism, heteronormativity, academia. I found writing. I was good at it, my professors told me. I became both God and believer. I put words on the page to grasp at liquid truth and broke my bones under the weight of my own new worlds: poetry, short stories, nonfiction, and, finally, over a decade, a novel.
The more acceptances and compliments I collected, the more I believed in writing. If only I worked hard, and perhaps got a little lucky, I would publish my novel eventually. Right? And then I’d get everything I’d ever wanted: financial stability that might let me escape the depressing quicksand of capitalism, adoring fans who looked up to me and saw me as someone worth remembering, and absolute proof that I was a good person, or at least a person good at something. Great , even. Maybe someone would fall in love with me.
Thus began a decade-long hustle that felt like zealotry. I worked administrative roles all day and wrote deep into the night, eating every cheap, hastily made meal in front of the screen, learning the raucous quiet of 3 a.m., ignoring texts and calls and friends so I could just have time . In my small Boston bedroom, my bed acted as my desk and my table. It was a thing I eventually fell asleep on while writing, woke up in, rushed out of. It was never a place of rest, never a place of comfort. What was rest? What was comfort? Who was I to deserve it, anyway? Those things had to be earned, and I wasn’t anyone, yet. My body shut down—I was sick all the time, mentally, physically. But I still hadn’t finished a book, hadn’t made it, and so I pushed harder.
I got a job at a university so I could take their creative writing classes at night and on weekends. I earned a master’s degree. I wrote dozens of drafts of the same novel and it was so slow going. I had the talent in theory, it seemed, but not the drive, because wouldn’t I be finished by then, if I was truly driven? Wouldn’t I be published? The only thing stopping me was me, my laziness, and my relentless mental illness. I was the one ruining my life, keeping myself chest-deep in the mud of my self-loathing. If I were a better, different person, the book would be done. It would be perfect. It would help people. I beat myself up when it took me a long time to revise a draft. I chastised myself for the nights I didn’t sit down at a keyboard and pour.
All the while, my life went on. I came out and fell in love (and someone fell for me) and moved to a new city, got a new job, adopted a mean and perfect dog. I made writing friends at school, events, fellowships, mentorship programs, and on Twitter. Part of the point was to network, to find people who could help me navigate an opaque and brutal industry. Many of them had already achieved all of the things I dreamed of reaching. But it was always deeper than that; I needed people who lived the sleepless, yearning life that I did. I needed friends who believed in the same God, who practiced in the same way. Because I love my friends deeply and know how they work, how they struggle—especially as queer people, especially as people who are marginalized in other ways—I became just as invested in their success as I was in my own, if not more so.
As I plodded through my many drafts, I watched some of them sign with agents, sell their manuscripts, and publish books. I cried real tears of relief, knowing people I loved would be saved: from soul-sucking day jobs, self-doubt, loneliness, mental illness, every horrible thing they’d ever done, from living an unremarkable life. Instead, I’ve watched them suffer in all of the same ways, and even in some new ones. They are tremendously grateful, gracious, generous, thoughtful people. And yet.
I’d always known most writers weren’t wealthy, but I believed if you sold a book or two somewhat successfully you could quit your job to write more books, to build on your success. I thought, too, I could supplement my writing with literary jobs. In reality, I learned, almost no one can afford to write full-time—not my heroes, not my favorite authors, not my friends—because of low advances, delayed payment structures, the necessity of health care. And so far, almost every editorial position I’ve held has been volunteer.
So, no, it seemed, writing wasn’t going to save me from capitalism, America’s broken health care system, or working deep into every night.
I learned that though many writers have adoring fans, most writers publish quietly and to little fanfare, even when they publish through traditional means with major publishers. There are so many books (good books!) published every year that most are a blip on readers’ radars. Even when there are readers who connect with the work, there are ten more people shredding it apart. For every email about how a book changed someone’s life, there are twenty people on Twitter tagging an author in a review that says the book was shit, and, by the way, the author must be a shitty person too. Every day, writers have to guard themselves against insidious racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism—the list goes on.
While story and craft critiques are expected, might sting and then fade, no matter how successful you are, it’s hard to scrub relentless bigotry or cruelty out of your brain. It slices through my friends’ dreams at night. It lives in their hearts.
So, no, writing wasn’t going to prove I was good at something, and it certainly wasn’t going to prove I was a good person. I also learned writing wasn’t going to save us from our own minds either. My friends and I send messages back and forth across the world: Sorry I’ve been out of touch, I’ve been depressed. Or anxious . Or traumatized . Or thinking about ending things; not going to do it, but damn, it’s been spinning through my mind . Writing a book serves as a much-needed, dissociative escape for many of us and has connected us to people we love, but it usually can’t do much more than that. Sometimes it makes mental illness worse, because of exhaustion, perfectionism, rejection, and flattened expectations.
So, no, writing wasn’t going to make me happy or healthy, and it definitely was not going to absolve me of my past or future sins.
Well, fuck. There goes another God.
There is true, gut-wrenching grief in learning that sometimes even our wildest dreams aren’t enough to save, heal, or absolve us, that heaven is just clouds, that God is just a balding man in a white robe asking us to repent. I’ve had to mourn and rage. I’ve had to weep and simmer.
Maybe you already knew all this. Maybe I was actually terribly, uniquely naive. Maybe you write for different reasons. Maybe you don’t need saving. Or maybe you do, but you weren’t taught to get on your knees and beg for salvation from a God who thinks you’re already damned. Or maybe you’re like me, like many of my friends, who were hoping publishing might save me, love me, judge me. Say I’m good and worthy. Bring me home, let me rest.
Writing will not save us, but I don’t say all this to depress you or to leave you hopeless, because there are things that can, at least a little. The best news is you don’t need a perfect novel, a book deal, or wild success to deserve them. I don’t know your specific sorrows, but things that help me: finding friends, a spouse, and peers who treat me well, who are kind to me. Choosing people who actively try to make my days better, and choosing to do the same for them. Loving people fiercely. Letting people know me. Learning ways to stay healthy, even though I’m drawn to self-destruction. Trying to figure out why I’m that way in the first place. Asking for help in big and small ways. Therapy. Falling apart when I need to. Resting when I can. Knowing none of this will be easy, that I will not master it. Knowing it’s the trying that’s the point. And yes, writing, not because it’s a God, but because it will always be a wild, brave prayer.
Though it will not save me from capitalism, insecurity, or my great many sadnesses, I write because I must, because it’s important, because I’m good at it, because it’s who I am. You should, too, because people do need your craft, even if it may not save their souls or yours. Your words show readers they are worthy of stories, invite them to escape their own sorrows, and help them see their own roaring, glittering humanity. Your stories build entire worlds. They make things possible. These are all things books can do. These are all things writing does .
At the time of writing this, I don’t know if my first novel will sell or if it won’t, despite my hard work and stellar agent and the many brilliant friends who have helped me write and rewrite and dream again. But I know with certainty that I’m proud of it. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever done, I want to share it, and one day soon I will, in one way or another. It’s about a nineteen-year-old girl named Avery who plans to drown herself in a river until she finds out the world is ending anyway. She chooses to see her family one last time in the orchards of New Hampshire. She decides to let herself love and be loved by her best friend, the girl she’s been tangled up in for years. All the while she believes none of it—not the urgency of the asteroid nor the gravity of her big love—can save her because she’s too broken to begin with.
I won’t spoil the ending (though the ending is only sometimes the point), but she does learn there is no one so broken they are completely unsalvageable. There is no life so hopeless that tomorrow can’t be at least just a little better. Though we may never be truly saved, we aren’t fully damned either. There are no false Gods. No sure bets. There’s just a quiet gratitude for quiet hope, for a fierce love, and for forgiveness.
All these many years, drafts, tears, and sleepless nights later, I’ve finally learned these things too. Or at least, I’m walking around with them near my heart. It feels like morning.