In one poignant session with the best therapist I ever had, while I was in the depths of a severe depressive episode as a graduate student, the therapist asked me what I would have if, tomorrow, my entire academic career was taken away: if I couldn’t be a teacher, I couldn’t work on my Ph.D., who would I be. I struggled with this question for most of the session. He was right. I’d wrapped my entire identity around my work.
At the very end of the session, as he stood to check his computer and set up our next session, I remember looking up at him from my chair and saying weakly: “My writing. No one can take away my writing.”
I meant it, of course, and it’s always been true. My writing has sustained me in all my darkest and brightest moments. It’s the truest friend I’ve ever had. It came to me in a time when I was literally trying to erase myself, and it’s never left me.
But at the same time, at that moment when I told the therapist that no one could take away my writing, I also realized that in a way the graduate studies that I thought would make me a better writer were actively taking my writing away from me, making me push it aside in favor of other tasks that felt like writing but weren’t feeding that part of me in a way, giving me a sort of literary malnutrition. I knew the feeling. I’d felt it before, too. I quit online roleplaying in forums in high school because I noticed that I was putting all my writing time into these ephemeral stories and neglecting my own stories; I felt like I had done enough writing for the day (and I had!) but at the same time I felt like I had no progress on my own projects to show for it.
When I say don’t let anyone steal your writing from you, I don’t mean don’t let people “steal” your ideas in the way many new writers fear. Ideas are cheap, and honestly no one really wants to steal them from you. Ideas aren’t that important: it’s execution that matters.
Nor, however, do I mean don’t let anyone steal your actual written words, which are (in the USA, at least) copyrighted to you as soon as you write them, and again, probably won’t be stolen anyway.
No, I mean don’t let anyone steal your writing in the most abstract sense. This is more in the sense of “don’t let anyone steal your joy.” Don’t let anyone take your reason for writing. Don’t let anyone interfere with your writing practice. Cultivate relationships that support your writing practice. Don’t let anyone take your writing from you.
This happens more often than you might think. I’ve known so many people who have, when the conversation turned to writing, told me that they used to write until something happened in their life: a toxic relationship, an exhausting job, something else that hollowed them out and left them having to rebuild their joy from the foundations. And to those people I have always gently suggested that, with the utmost patience and love for themselves, they return to the writing. Reclaim that part of themselves. Make it their own again. Make it a part of their joy that no one can steal away.
This applies, of course, to not only writing, but writing is what I know. Certainly I’d give the same advice to someone who used to love baking, or sewing, or whatever. But writing seems to be a frequent victim, perhaps because taking time to write doesn’t look productive in the way other hobbies might look. People who want to reshape you into something you aren’t will attack your writing because it is so personal, so resonant with yourself, and the time you are writing is time you aren’t serving them.
I don’t care what you’re writing, either, as long as it’s bringing you joy. Sometimes it’s romance, sometimes it’s fanfic, sometimes it’s fantasy, sometimes it’s poetry… but the story is always the same. When the person speaks of the writing they used to do, it’s with sadness, as if mourning losing a close companion. But it’s something they can get back. It doesn’t take much. Twenty minutes every other day, perhaps.
You don’t have to aspire to be a bestseller. You don’t even have to share your writing if you don’t want to. What matters is that it’s your writing, and that it gives you joy.
I’m in that process of reclaiming. It’s been a many-years process. That conversation with the therapist keeps echoing in my head, as I suppose it was meant to. Sure, I kept doing NaNoWriMo, but there are entire years I don’t remember what I wrote because my writing had been taken from me, bit by bit.
I’m in a healthy relationship (as far as I can tell) now, and my partner values my writing. Not because he wants to read it (I’m thankful that he doesn’t!), but because he cares about me and he knows it’s a part of me. He helps me set goals to remember that part and make priorities for it. So now I’m walking back through those dusty passages in my own brain, pulling up files from my past, and remembering that these were my friends. They’re waiting for me. It’s awkward, sure, and it’s a process, but it’s still there. I just have to make myself a priority.
So that’s my take-away today: if you feel like writing is an important part of you, don’t let anyone take it away from you. If someone in your life is dismissing your writing practice, protect your writing from that person. And if that person is you, it’s time you took care of yourself and made your own identity a priority too.