Writers are a ragtag, scattered bunch. We scribble things on napkins, on receipts, squirrel them away in pockets, in folders, in cigar boxes. In her essay, "On Keeping a Notebook," Joan Didion writes, "The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself." My mother told me something similar when I was young: you don't get to choose whether you're a writer; your only choice is whether to be a writer who writes or a writer who doesn't. What she didn't tell me then, though I'm certain she knew, is that if you're a writer and you're not writing, you will never quite be happy.
After I finished my MFA program, I wrote almost no fiction for four years. Life, as they say, was getting in the way: law school, divorce, teaching, coming out. The obstacles to writing are different in every case, but they are also the same. They are urgent, and tap our physical, emotional, financial, and intellectual resources. We tell ourselves we'll have more time soon: on the weekend, in the summer, in the winter, when the baby stops teething, when the conference is over, when we get tenure, when the house is tidy.
I started writing again when I started reading again. Haruki Murakami, Amy Bloom, Paul Auster, Miranda July, Aravind Adiga, and Don Delillo beckoned me back with their alluring characters, plights at once believable and fantastic. I listened to audiobooks on my commute; I took a solo vacation on which I did little but hike and read. When I read great things, I can't help but want to write. I began scribbling things down in a notebook again. I went back to stories I'd started years earlier. I started some new ones.
I'd like to think that my writing self is different from the self who stands in front of sociology undergraduates and dutifully lectures them about qualitative research methods. I'd like to believe she is wiser, wistful, more creative, and that she comes out of hiding on certain early mornings when the time is right and the coffee is rich and hot, that she writes a few stunning pages and slips back into bed while my other self drives into Palo Alto to make a living. Perhaps this division appeals to me because it makes me feel less guilty when I haven't written anything in a month: only my writing self can write, and she's moody. If the conditions aren't perfect, she can't be expected to emerge.
But in the end, there is only me and my busy, imperfect life. The days that I write are victories. And even after the most discouraging, least productive sessions, I never regret writing. I learn over and over that time spent writing is time well spent.
"Roadrunner" is a special story to me because it's the first thing I managed to write after my four-year dry spell. I started the story in my MFA program, but my first drafts were terrible (no climax, no development; nothing happened). I plucked it from the drawer years later because at 29, I'd finally signed up for a writing workshop again, but wasn't ready to start something from scratch. Reworking my words, understanding the protagonist, peeling away layers of the story to find its core—these things did not come easily, but they felt like coming home.
Life is short, but by God's grace, for most of us it is also long. This gives us a great deal of time to follow Samuel Beckett's famous imperative to fail, fail again, and fail better. To succeed, we have to fail. To fail, we have to try. To try, we have to put ourselves on the line—risk freezing our limited, myopic worldviews onto the page for everyone to scoff at. We don't "discover" our writing selves. We build ourselves into writers by realizing that our busy, imperfect lives are the writing life.