The Promise

There’s more to life than not writing

Wang Yiyi, Objects Obsession - Mechanical Pencil. 2017, ink and color on paper. 10.6 × 6.3". Courtesy of the artist.

Something extraordinary happened at the Rewriters’ Workshop. Arnold Mitchell, a first-year student who had barely escaped the wait list, came down with a severe case of writer’s block: the kind that could make or break an author’s career. A group of us went to offer our congratulations, though not without skepticism. It’s not uncommon for a student believed to be experiencing “the block” to discover later that it had been a temporary thing, like a head cold.

But for Arnold, it was the real dealor was it? By the time we saw him and offered our praises for his newfound inability to write anything substantial, his standing in the program had already improved. He was moved from his ugly room in a concrete housing complex to a place off campus: a bright two-story apartment whose attic room was replete with floating bookshelves and an antique teacher’s desk of solid oak. In the dim light of the kitchen, we saw him hunched over the table, alone.

“Look, he’s writing. I can’t believe it!”

Somebody whispered those words into my ear just as we entered Arnold’s new apartment. It was Jenny Maxwell, a second-year student who had already published five novels. We peered nervously into Arnold’s kitchen as he sat on a long bench with a ballpoint pen in his hand, scanning a stack of papers strewn about the tabletop.

Did this mean there was nothing to celebrate, after all? Was he, in the end, just like usjust another creative writer?

“Come on in, guys! I’m signing my new lease, that’s all,” he said without looking up from the table. “I hardly count that as writing,” he added, and smiled as though reading our minds.

And yet even signing his name to this document was causing him great pain and anxiety. He didn’t want the act to encourage him further in any way, lest he somehow become unblocked. He tried to convince one of us to sign his name on the dotted line, but none of us would. He looked right at me. A bottle of bubbly popped behind us. A gaggle of students toasted Arnold’s name. “Please,” he said, and pushed the pen into my hand, or tried to.

Instead I accepted the two glasses of prosecco that Reuben Gomez handed me and passed one to Arnold. Reuben was the editor of the program’s literary magazine, The Hours, an online journal that published a short story every hour, every day, including nights and weekends. Writers loved it for its frequency, which improved the odds of publication. Readers, well, there weren’t any. Arnold took a long sip and stood to offer a toast. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “We always celebrate the differences of writers, but tonight, I propose a toast to our similarities, to the main task we all have at hand.” He held his glass above his head. “To writing!”

Jenny excused herself amid the clinking of glasses and went to use the bathroom. I saw an orange-sherbet-colored notebook tucked under her arm as she closed the door. She was in there a long time. She came out with a collection of linked stories set in the Pacific Northwest, in a fictional town called Macarena. It marked her sixth book in a little over a year, or would once it was published. She didn’t tell us this. She didn’t have to. The tears in her eyes said it all.

The truth is, we were all lucky enough to have experienced writer’s block at some point in our young lives. The block was the reason we were at the program in the first place. Selected from a competitive pool of talented writers who nevertheless lacked our special gift, we represented the potential of an entire generation. From the beginning, the strength of our funding, from tuition remissions to stipends, as well as the entire trajectory of our so-called careers, was based on the severity of our blockage, which was taken as a sign of the promise of our ability to create something “new.”

I personally had had it pretty bad, which is to say good, at the time of my application. I barely managed to scrape together my personal statement before the deadline, which I had already asked for an extension of, such was my struggle. Not only had I never published anything, I hadn’t written much either, and precisely because I was able to prove my lack of track record publishingwise without foreclosing its potential, I was seen, according to my agent, to be on the path of greatest success.

That’s right, I had an agent. Once she heard how poorly I was dealing with writer’s block, and at such an early stage in the game, she signed me to her list without delay. A two-book deal, with what’s called a first-look option for a third! The money wasn’t great, but combined with my stipend it was enough to get by. It had to be.

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