quit, if you can.

I had a professor in college who told me this about being a writer:  Quit, if you can.  I wrote it down (not so much because I understood his wisdom but because I wrote down almost everything he said that year) in blue ink at the start of the first chapter of our required textbook for the course, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.

I had no idea what it meant.

I knew, of course, that there would be rejection.  I had heard the stories of those who had papered the walls of their offices with rejection slips of various sizes and colors.  I knew that the chances that I’d make a living off my writing were slim-to-none (but come on, who can say that the idea of the “starving artist” isn’t a wonderfully romantic notion before one begins the actual starving?).  I knew that I’d have to pursue an MFA, publish, then pray that someone hired me to teach their fledgling writers (even though another professor held his palm up to warn me that he could count on the fingers of that one hand the number of jobs in the country like his).  I mean, I got it; a writer’s life was going to be hard.

But I didn’t understand the ways in which it would be hard.  And it wasn’t until I quit “being a writer” that I began to understand why I couldn’t.

Some months ago, I told my husband that I was going to give up writing, that I just wanted to live a normal life, that teaching and raising a family was enough.  That maybe I would start gardening.  Or making salsa.  I was so tired of the nagging, the pulling of that voice that kept reminding me, “You should be writing,”  the one that measured my self-worth by what I had published (or hadn’t).  So I quit.  And it felt good to say that I quit.

But then I discovered that, for me, a writer’s mind is more of an affliction than anything else.  Everything I see or experience translates itself into words, and my brain edits and rewrites, edits and rewrites, until they are the right words, even when I have no real intention of writing them down.  It’s a kind of compulsion, I suppose.  There are words inside me that work their way out.  And I can’t stop that.  I can’t quit.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand completely that my attempt at “blogging” is selfish, that writing anything with the expectation that someone else might read it is a selfish act.  But I’m no Salinger (what would Holden say about Facebook, anyway?) and probably never will be.  At the start of my favorite novel, Papa Hemingway says, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Maybe that is why we are compelled to write.