The Weight of the Unwritten Word

Huda Al-Marashi

Huda Al-Marashi

I didn’t write this summer. Not only were my children home from school all day, but it was Ramadan and we were finally moving into the house we’d been rebuilding from the foundation up for close to two years. It was too much to juggle, the boxes, the hunger, the thirst, the late night iftars, and I thought it would help to declare an official break. Maybe then I could stave off the frustration of trying to write and not getting anything done.

Even when I took a short break for a writing fellowship in Aspen, I came home and got right back to not writing. I unpacked boxes, made arrangements for our unfinished deck, and refinanced our construction loan. At night, I revised my long lists of to dos, filled with subcontractors to call, items to order, items to buy, items to return. During the day, I went from room to room, organizing closets, washing linens that had been in storage for two years and putting them away, asking myself about every mismatched towel, table cloth, and drape, “Why? Why did we bring this?” I waited for the electrician, the plumber, the carpenter, the painter. And still I didn’t write anything. I didn’t look at my manuscript, only rarely scribbled in my journal, and hardly ever read. “This so much better,” I reminded myself. “Get everything done now and then you can focus in the fall.”

But that frustration I thought I was avoiding by lowering my expectations never relented. It chased me down daily if not hourly. Coursing in the back of mind was always this loop of accusations: “You’ve lost your way this time;” “You can’t be a serious writer if you can take such long breaks from your work;” “There must be a minimum word count a week that distinguishes the real writers from fakers like you.”

On many occasions I’ve contemplated the ways in which a writing life has not made me a better person. More than once, I’ve made lists of these reasons in my journals, as if there is nothing ironic about a person writing about why she shouldn’t be writing. So far, I’ve concluded the following:

Writing makes me less patient with myself.

Writing make me insecure.

Writing makes me jealous of other writers.

Writing makes me greedy with my time.

Writing holds me hostage. It makes me feel guilty about doing anything that is not writing.

I couldn’t think of any other career path that made people feel so vile when they were not working. My physician husband didn’t bemoan a day when he didn’t write anyone a prescription. My nurse-practitioner mother never lamented the hours she didn’t spent coaching someone on their diabetes. My engineer sister thoroughly resented the time she spent working on the weekends, and although my professor brother loved teaching, he didn’t loathe himself on the days when he didn’t have a class.

But I never looked back on a day of not writing and said, “What a great, relaxing day! Got away from my desk. Haven’t even picked up a pen or typed out a word!” On the contrary, I weighed all time away from my writing desk in the metric of how many pages I could have written, the heft of all those unwritten words hunkering down within me like stones.

Soon after Ramadan ended, I met a writing friend for coffee. We had the bleak kind of conversations writers who are also parents of young children often have—about how summers are rough and school teases you into thinking you’ve got all this time to work, but by the time you find where you were at in your manuscript, you have to leave to pick your child up.

“Time at a desk feels like just a blink,” I said.

“How does anyone ever finish anything like this?” my friend added.

I planned to stay in the coffee shop for another hour after my friend left, to finally work on something, but now with the seat in front of me empty, working for just one hour felt impossible.

After weeks of not writing, I didn’t know where to start. My manuscript was too big to broach; I’d have to leave before I could reacquaint myself with even the first pages fifty of it. I didn’t want to look at any of my shorter pieces either. Opening up my folder of unfinished essays, all needing revision and none on submission, made me anxious. And, so I scribbled something in my notebook about it being hopeless, and I left, surprisingly anxious to get back to what I knew: the tightness, the squeeze, the press of demands waiting for me at home. At least those tasks could be checked off a list, declared done.

In the car, I tried to comfort myself.

You will find your way back.

Distance always nurtures something.

Summers are just hard.

But my writer’s mind was not so easily quieted. The urge to work has always filled me with a rushing kind of restlessness—an itch that crawls under my skin. On the days when I write, I am rewarded with an unparalleled stillness, an almost physical sensation of silence that my body experiences as wellness, as balance restored. But on the days when I don’t work, I writhe with that merciless itch. I grasp for someone, something to blame.

It’s time you got a real job and worked every day like a normal person.

It’s embarrassing to have invested so much time on one book project.

You let this move and this house and your family completely derail you.

When I walked in the door, I wanted to blame my spouse for my failure to work, for not insisting that I carve the space that I needed to write, but, in a rare turn of events, my husband had come home early and my mother had brought us dinner, and my family was already eating and fending for themselves. I could have stayed out another hour or two, and nothing would have happened. All I would have had to do was pick up the phone and ask how everyone was managing without me, but I didn’t because I’d already decided that I was indispensable, that the entire foundation of our home rested on my two shoulders.

The sight of my family seated at the table together made me to pause. Apart from all the writerly angst I was wrestling with, I knew there was something deeper dragging me down. I had convinced myself that I didn’t have a right to insist on my writing time because I didn’t earn any money for it. Since I didn’t pay any bills, I had to take the pressure off my spouse and allow him to put in the extra hours at work. I had to be the housekeeper, the cook, the shopper, and the driver, so that I could be the penniless writer, too.

It was a narrative I’d unintentionally crafted to justify what had come to feel like an indulgent hobby after years of writing without any compensation. To redeem myself, I splayed sacrifice upon sacrifice on my children and my spouse’s altar as if they were unappeasable gods demanding tribute. But in doing so, I’d lost my way to the temple, to the words waiting for my devotion, waiting for my respect.

Read more by Huda, here.

Huda Al-Marashi is an Iraqi-American at work on a memoir about the impact of her dual-identity on her marriage. Excerpts from this memoir have appeared in the anthologies Love Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women, Becoming: What Makes a Woman, In Her Place, and Beyond Belief. Other works have recently appeared in The Rumpus Funny Women Column and the anthology Rust Belt Chic. Her poem, TV Terror, is part of a touring exhibit commemorating the Mutanabbi Street Bombing in Baghdad. She is the recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship, a program of the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, made possible by the generous support of Cuyahoga County citizens through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

3 Comments on “The Weight of the Unwritten Word”

  1. mamaberni says:

    I can so relate to this! This summer we moved to a new house, well, old house really, a parsonage that needed a whole lot of updating. You lose your mind and your self in all the boxes and painting really. So glad fall is here and I can lose myself in homeschooling instead :/ never ends!

  2. Other than writing, I also feel like “studying” haunts me the same way. Ie if I Plan to write a certification, and I know I have to study. But with the house and the baby, and work and everything else I kept postponing it and its always at the back of my mind. I HAVE TO STUDY. I think a day to day routine job cannot be postponed because we have to show up no matter what. so the weekend and rest works well.
    Writing/Studying anything we can postpone or pushback. Not so much.
    This sounded like the story of my life for the last 6 months.

  3. Lulu says:

    Sounds to familiar