Writing about Not Writing—By Sivan Slapak

Is a writer who isn’t writing still a writer? And if so, for how long a stretch? These are the questions I’ve been asking myself—actually, tormenting myself with—for the last year or two.

Even at my most active I’ve never had a writing routine. I wish I could say I’ve always woken up to meet my muse at 9 a.m. each morning. Nevertheless, I’ve somehow managed to amass material over the past few years, with a collection of interwoven short stories as the intended goal.

When I began crafting some stories about five years ago, I didn’t call myself a writer. The verb was okay: “Writing a bit,” but not the noun. I’ve kept journals since childhood, met in writing groups since my teens. Then came academic papers, grant writing gigs, and so on. So, I’ve been engaged in the act in various ways throughout my life. But “writer”? It seemed pretentious, or premature at best. Like the difference between having an artistic spirit, and creating art.

Despite some early successes—getting published, shortlisted, even awarded (!)—I found it challenging to accept, and introduce, myself as a writer. (“I just write a bit!”) But with time, I allowed myself to settle into the identity. In some ways this has calmed other questions about my place in the world, when I, like so many of us, feel I’ve made a life of living on the seams. For a writer, that’s not a bad spot to be.

But what does a writer who hasn’t been writing call herself? (“Lost,” when she’s panicking.) I know we’re supposed to believe that lulls and blocks are part of the creative process (I’ve read The Artist’s Way, too) and that resting and inputting—reading, seeing art, living life without notating it—is an incubation period. And I suppose I do essentially think that. Yet at some point this ‘incubation’ begins to feel more like stagnation, and the idea of ‘writer experiencing a lull’ is harder to buy than ‘not a writer anymore.’ Especially when the pause becomes longer than the writing that preceded it.

Of course, there are lots of reasons for a writing hiatus. The simple ones are limits of time and energy. For me, I’ll say work: over the years it’s mainly been in the community and arts sectors (to my joy), often as a coordinator or editor. I love these roles and they offer flexibility, but I’ve noticed I easily choose working on others’ projects over my own, even when I don’t have to. Before I had a job, my blocks were caused by the paralyzing anxiety of NOT having enough work, or not having work I like. So, there’s always something. And there’s always the hauling undertow of social media to compound the issue. In any case, like many writers I know, I struggle to prioritize writing time, and the obvious excuses are less complicated than facing other, less conscious motives. Whatever the reasons, the longer I go without writing, the more miserable I feel.

What about my short story collection? What about being a writer?

In recent years I’ve hung on, by my fingertips, to the fragile thread of a notion that I’m still a writer. An unproductive one, but still.

Thankfully, I seem to be slowly emerging from my dry spell, and I’ve been looking back on what’s kept me holding on: I have to credit the writing group I’ve been part of for several years. I haven’t submitted in ages, but I’ve stayed in as a reader and tried to be an active presence in our little community. Their support has buoyed me.

I also took two QWF workshops. I didn’t produce new work, but it gave me a chance to revisit some pieces and say, “Hey, this isn’t horrible!” (And have peers say similarly encouraging things.)

This year I began writing daily morning pages, which put a pen back in my hand and is as close to a routine as I get. In the winter, riled up about a political issue, I wrote an op ed, which was published. Soon after, so was an old story I’d dusted off. I attended a ‘Shut Up and Write’ session in a QWF writer’s house. And just recently I met the criteria to have my “Literary Writer” profile approved by the Canada Council for the Arts. Bureaucratic recognition though it is, I felt grateful to receive it.

So, there have been steps, some small and some more significant, in the realm of writerly activity. Not (yet) my completed short story collection. Or even another short story. But something, maybe more than I thought. Enough movement to feel reassured that while I’ve been fretting over stagnation versus incubation, my writer-self has kept busy.

profile 2017 leslie schachter

Sivan Slapak is a writer working in the arts and culture sector of Montreal. Her short stories have won and been shortlisted for fiction awards, and appeared in publications such as The New Quarterly, Montréal SeraiJONAHmagazine, and in an anthology published by Véhicule Press. Sivan lived abroad for many years and is fascinated by the encounters that take place when distinct communities meet, a theme she enjoys exploring in her writing, and in her life—and in the short story collection she hopes to complete soon.

Photo credits: Sivan Slapak (header image); Leslie Schachter (headshot)

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