The Year I Didn’t, Couldn’t and Desperately Wanted to Write

For the last year I’ve been a sex writer who doesn’t write. I haven’t had much sex either, but that’s a different essay.

I’m not sure when I actually stopped writing. I know that finding words became a constant grind around March 2016. I know that the semi-weekly bursts of inspiration on my commute sputtered out and my blog posts became infrequent and forced. I know that I have pages and pages of abandoned first sentences. I know that I wanted to write, that every day I woke up wanting to write because that is who I have been for my entire life. It was heartbreaking to have nothing to say. I always have something to say, but the saying was out of reach.

When I did write, it was often about my voice and how I’d lost it. I forced myself to write about the Alt-Right and online harassment and my encroaching awareness that words now came with a tax. I associated posting something, anything online with snarled slurs in my Twitter mentions and attempts to hack my Instagram account. Even now after months of doing little of value online I will stand in the shower and hear my iPhone chime six, seven, eight, nine, ten times in quick succession and know someone is resetting my Twitter password again again again again again. I’m inured to digital invasions but the price is that ideas have just stopped coming. Even when I wasn’t planning to publish my writing anywhere, even when I was trying to write for myself, I felt like pouring molasses through a paper funnel.

But it’s not like there weren’t things happening in my life worth writing about. This Spring I attempted to start dating women, and I say “attempting” because I very quickly learned that I am terrible with women. Accepting my bisexuality has led to a new coming-of-age story with all the same hijinks of a bad teen flick: the crush confessed and rejected after too much beer on my twenty-fifth birthday, the girl who may or may not have made out with someone else on our date, the endless swiping through men on Tinder to get to one queer woman’s profile even in the gayest borough in New York City. A friend introduced me to the cute butch RA in her dormitory and I vomited up a strange and potentially offensive joke, my anxious stutter from years ago resurfacing to my mortification. Around attractive women I regress to to a fourteen-year-old version of myself, unable to think of basic questions to start a conversation. I can invite myself to a man’s city and demand that he beg me to touch him, to fuck him, to let him come. But ask a girl for her number? Impossible. And that insecurity is so rare and unexpected for me that I have felt the descriptions clawing at my palms to get out for months. The way awe takes over face when she takes in the view from the stage for the first time. Wondering if the waitress is holding eye contact deliberately or just being polite. The constant doubt of is she flirting is she flirting is she flirting with me. But, but. There’s still that whole words thing to contend with, and then I feel like shit all over again.

Here’s the kicker though: back in March or April—I’ve repressed most of the details by now—a tiny indie publishing house asked me to send them a book proposal for a memoir about herpes. This is also known as The Opportunity I Have Been Working Toward For The Last Two Years ™. I told them I would have a proposal ready by the end of May. Instead of writing a word, I visited as many bookstores as I could and found the shelves where my future best seller would sit. I imagined the author events I would have on this stage and at that in-store café. I imagined how wonderful it would be to have written the book. It took me a while to realize I could not write the book. Not only I could not, but I did not want to. I have nothing left to say about herpes. The idea of reliving that time in my life, the tearful phone calls, the oddly romantic disclosures, all of that shit made me feel trapped under a palette of printer paper in some warehouse. I disappointed everyone, but most of all myself, when I finally emailed the editor and admitted this wasn’t the book for me. But my relief outweighed my disappointment.

My therapist asked me what book I actually want to write, if not this one. I have a few ideas but mostly I just want to write again. I want to write and not for hits or retweets or viral headlines. I want to write because when I’m really in the zone my throat gets hot and I am on autopilot, free from doubt or distraction. When I am writing and the writing is good, I feel like a Ketchup bottle someone has whacked at exactly the right angle. When I’m sitting at a bar by myself with my laptop and a beer and the words flow and the plot collects, that is when I love myself. That is when I feel absolutely sure of who I am and what I want and why I am here. I forgot that. I missed that.

I want to write. I desperately, desperately want to write.

In what I’m becoming convinced is no accident, I went off my Lexapro prescription a little over a month ago. It didn’t take long for my dormant sex drive to wake up and smell the attractive ex-boyfriend pouring me another pint of beer at his new apartment. He smirked at me when I admitted that it was becoming a little easier to write without the SSRI. “Who would have thought you need to feel things in order to create,” he drawled, a kindred artist with his own mental health demons. I won’t say that anti-anxiety medication made me stop writing—it’s crossed my mind more than once that I might not be alive without them, or at least I might not be okay enough to even want to write. But I wonder if it’s a coincidence that it is summer and I feel desired and desiring and here I am, chugging along on page three. I don’t know.

I hope it’s like building a muscle. I got tired last year, exhausted, and I stopped writing and my mind fell out of practice doing this thing I’d always felt I was born knowing how to do. It got harder and harder to start again and I got scared and hurt and upset. People kept asking me at parties what I was working on and I just kind of shrugged at them, and then people started asking me at parties why they weren’t seeing my writing on their social feeds anymore, unaware that isn’t a polite thing to ask. Or at least it felt rude, poking on a bruise. I bought this new laptop, my first in six years, and the keys are really shitty, constantly sticking and requiring me to slam down my little bird fingers to make a dent, a space between the words I’m already fighting so hard for. It’s frustrating but oddly appropriate. Writing requires effort and I need to put in the energy now, at least for now. It’s worth it to me.

This is all to say that I am trying, and also that no, I am not writing a book about herpes. I have this idea for a short story collection of erotica all taking place on the same night on a college campus. I’m working on a story for an anthology a friend is editing based on a recent illicit texting adventure. My writing muscles are loosening up, the burn a mixture of pleasure and pain. I’m only going to write what I really want to write and I’m only going to post what I really need to post (and not, never, for attention). It’s a start. This is a start.

I’m not going to write for you for a while. I hope that’s okay, but if it’s not I don’t really care. I’m picking up the pen I put down on the day I wrote for Women’s Health and became an accidental, viral (hah) hero. I was in the middle of a great short story back then about hookup culture and intimacy. It included a lot of graphic language and I worried it would damage my respectability as a newly minted sexual health pioneer. Well, fuck that. I’m a sex writer. It’s nice to meet you.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

5 thoughts on “The Year I Didn’t, Couldn’t and Desperately Wanted to Write

  1. What a hard set of decisions. Good for you for following your gut — You should get to feel excited, obsessed with writing your book!

    Also: I’ve had similar experiences with SSRIs blocking my creativity. It’s such a hard balance.

  2. we learn it is important for me to separate our professional writing from our personal writing and publishing spaces. How great that you’ve stopped pills that are “numbing you out”…but I hope you have replaced this with something better…it’s difficult to hear people stopping medications when they might need them.

  3. It’s hard to live up to other people’s expectations for you, something I discovered far too late in my life. If you feel like writing, write. If you don’t feel like writing, don’t. Take a break. Do some travelling, or discover a new interest. When the writing urge returns you will know about it. People who enjoy your writing will wait. Be happy. If you can’t be happy, then try for contentment. It’s a reasonable substitute. Good luck.

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