You’ve just done a deep dive into difficult material: the death of someone dear, a trauma from childhood, a failure that cuts deep. Your editor, professor, and writing colleagues — those carefully honed beta readers — were moved by your work. You were surprised by how moved because you weren’t sure about what you’d ultimately created. You knew it came from a deep place, there was discomfort in the writing and perhaps a tiny bit of pleasure, too. But when you finally were ready for others to see it, uncertainty remained. The material was raw and you felt exposed. When the piece finally had an audience and it was well received, you are thrilled. Maybe a tiny bit surprised. And relieved because there is nothing worse than thinking you’ve hit the mark and having a writing audience sit silently, unsure.
Now, it’s a few days or perhaps a week later and you are ready to go back in. The next draft. The next chapter. The next poem of the collection, or story for a volume of linked stories. You try to get back to that place. You do all the things you usually do — heat your coffee to a certain temperature, stretch your neck and torso, take the dog out, feed the cat. You stare at the blank page. You type a sentence, erase it, start again.
The author who appears on the page is someone you don’t recognize. It’s not the writer who dove in and mined his or her depths but someone who is delighted to skim across the surface, spend enormous amounts of time getting the wording of a sentence right, scouring the internet for a certain fact. You find yourself writing about something entirely unrelated to “your story.” Instead of writing about trauma, you are relaying a disagreement you had with the dry cleaner. Or, you are writing about birds. You don’t even like birds. Why are you writing about them? Despite all these questions, you marshal through until you end up with something that feels complete.
But what is it that you have written? And why have you written it?
I call this palate cleansing writing. The kind of writing that we do after a deep dive into something extremely emotional. It’s a break. A respite from the heavy lifting and, a necessary part of the writing process. The mind is still working on the big story but it can’t be forced. It needs to go at its own pace. And so, we have these breaks from the depths where we find ourselves bobbing on the surface, writing about our backyards, our altercations, our preoccupations, anything. But the good news is this. We are writing.
I used to try to resist this process and make myself go back to the other story. I would sit there, numb, like a child refusing to eat her vegetables at dinner. Now, I understand this as a rest stop in the journey. I tell myself writing about birds or plumbers or my coffee cup keeps my mind moving forward, while the big story is set on a windowsill to rise before it can go into the oven and bake.
Andrea Marcusa is a writer of literary fiction and essays that have appeared in The Baltimore Review, River Styx, Epiphany, New South, and others. She’s received recognition from the writing competitions Glimmer Train, Third Coast, Ontario Review, Ruminate Magazine, and New Letters and been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.