The Grief of Writing

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2017


Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’ve been mulling over this essay, In praise of doubt and uselessness, by writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Rereading it. Pulling out phrases that fire me up and comfort me. In the most potent way that the personal is political, Nguyen tells the story of his evolution as a writer in the larger context of supporting the arts and humanities “for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.”  The hope that the public will continue to value its artists and nurture them, to support their work despite lack of quantitative measurements of success—beyond awards received or units sold—is felt as keenly now as ever.


But it is Nguyen’s phrase, the grief of writing, that plays a soft and constant refrain in my mind.


A professional writer and editor asked me the other day what I liked to do. Well, beyond strapping a pack to my back and lacing up my boots for 20 kms on trails in southwest Ireland, I like to write. Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills, squeezing out 100 words after four hours of pounding work, yes, even that I like. This writer/editor regarded me skeptically, stating he found writing tortuous, the evil means to an end. He preferred editing others’ writing, work he could walk away from without worrying if it mattered to anyone else.


Hearing this, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phrase came to mind. The grief of writing. Knowing that, even as we spill our souls on the page, it might not—it likely won’t ever—matter to anyone else.


For the past year, I’ve mourned the lack of writing in my life. Revising, promoting, promoting and revising some more, have taken precedence. But in recent weeks, I’ve come close to capturing my bliss. As I near the end of revising a novel, the first draft of which was complete nearly two years ago, I’ve written new scenes and reconnected with characters I love. The hours I’ve been able to carve out for this writing have brought so much peace and healing. Knowing that in a matter of weeks I will be able to start on something completely new, so new I’m not even certain yet what it is, fills me with joy.


I vaguely knew, but didn’t really understand, how much writing would demand from me, how much it would dismantle me as a professional, much to my own grief but ultimately for my own betterment as a writer and a scholar. Viet Thanh Nguyen


This past year has been a dismantling of a writer. Necessary, perhaps. Inevitable, according to so many of my mentors who walked the publishing road ahead of me. The grief of writing comes from realizing all that you do not know and accepting that not only are there no shortcuts to gaining that wisdom, but that no one is all that interested in your progress. It is, as Nguyen reminds us, an act of faith and “faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.”


And so I come full circle, back to knowing that it is the writing itself that matters, not the outcome, over which I have so little control. The peace and release are their own rewards, and how I know, in the very meat and tendons and veins and blood of my soul, that I am a writer.


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion


11 thoughts on “The Grief of Writing

  1. “Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills” – oh how I can relate to this, Julie. Though, my dear, sweet friend, you are one of the most talented, most beautiful writers I know, so please go easy on yourself when these thoughts arise. Doubts are woven into the cells of every writer. We sweat, we laugh, we cry, we bleed on that page and wonder if any of it matters or any of it is good or ‘good enough.’ And finally we rejoice…in that one sentence, that one phrase that sets our soul soaring. And it’s clear again, for at least that fleeting moment, that of course it matters. Even if it doesn’t to anyone else at that particular time. It matters to us, it touches us, and that’s why we write.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this post. All that you write, and Nguyen as well, rings true to me and my experience.The writing is a joy when it’s going well, a slog when it’s not, and wrought round with the uncertainty (and yes, grief) that it will ever matter, as you say, to anyone but me. But maybe that is enough. How could it not be if “me” is all any of us ever really have, for certain.

    I came across this quote today, just before reading this, that makes so much sense in this context. I thought you might like it.

    “The more you struggle to live, the less you live. Give up the notion that you must be sure of what you are doing. Instead, surrender to what is real within you, for that alone is sure….you are above everything distressing.” ― Baruch Spinoza

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When your blog rings into my email it’s stop, drop, and roll on my end, knowing that each one carries a flame I will benefit from. “Suffering the grief of writing”—that phrase caught me as well. Concern about society’s support for this burdensome effort burdens me as well.

    But when asked in an interview the other day if I always knew I wanted to be a writer, I recognized the truth when these words came to me in answer: “I just always was a writer.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love that answer so much, Kathryn. Not when I knew, but the recognition that I always was. That resonates deeply.
      Our work, ours to do, is to keep working. The writing is its own statement, its own resistance and persistence, its own reward. Love you so much! xoxo Julie

      Liked by 1 person

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