How one writer decides to be less of a writer and begins to question everything she loves about writing. Maggie Tiojakin contemplates waving the white flag and putting down her pen.
I quit writing. No, seriously. I quit, quit. I’m throwing in the towel and waving the white flag. Done. Finito. That was what I had told some of my closest allies these past couple of months and their reactions ranged from utter surprise to great shock to indescribable sadness. Except for one person, a fellow writer, who shrugged and basically said “OK.” But nearly all of them were convinced my decision had stemmed from some form of dissatisfaction with the industry or work-related stress. I get it. Really. After spending more than 20 years telling myself and others how writing is the only thing that’s keeping me sane and how it enriches my inner being and inspires me to be a better person each day, after all those incredible experiences of connecting with readers, writers, publishers, editors and festival organizers, it doesn’t seem right that I should suddenly abandon the calling. Or what I perceived to be “the calling.”
I was 12 when it happened, not long after I finished reading John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. I felt protected living between the pages of a fictional work and pretty soon I began to crave that security, that sense of escape, that sentiment as if the world was on your side and all you had to do was have a little faith in the impossible. I was 12 and I decided I would dedicate my life to writing. It would be the only plan to live by. And, for most of my adult life, it certainly was — until 2015.
Nothing major happened in my life that year. On the literary stage, Indonesia was gearing up to fulfill its duty as the guest of honor at the highly esteemed Frankfurt Book Fair.
I was 12 and I decided I would dedicate my life to writing.
Since early that year, there had been a concerted effort by the ministry of education and several other organizations to make the event memorable by delivering breathtaking presentations of our rich and diverse culture. I was asked to participate at the fair, both as an author and translator. However, it’s important to note that at that point more than a handful of writers had taken to social media to raise objections to the selection process for who was going and who was not, or whose books would receive translation grants and whose books would still be on the waiting list.
Naturally, Facebook and Twitter were set ablaze by all sorts of gleeful announcements and declarations of displeasure by the warring parties. Labels, verbal insults and snide comments were hurled directly and indirectly at each other. Many chose to steer clear of the growing argument, but ultimately they were dragged into the eye of the storm by sheer chance and ended up having to explain themselves.
Mind you, most writers I knew managed to avoid the brouhaha and smartly stayed out of public view. Later, when I expressed my lack of interest in participating in the event, they did their best to assure me these things happen and there’s no reason for me to feel unnerved. It’s just people being people, they said. Grow up, was what they didn’t say but quietly hinted at.
That year was crucial. That year changed everything. It stirred in me things I didn’t know was stir-able.
I have always thought perhaps I don’t have what it takes to be a proper writer, or that I am an impostor somehow. I am uncomfortable talking about my own work or the reason I write.
Eventually, I bowed out of the fair. Perhaps the slot would have been better used by another writer who actually wanted to go. Then I began to question my belonging to this particular trade. Or, to be exact, I began to question my own drive, the reason I had been so sure of the idea that in order to live I had to write. The blank page, which for so long had served me well as a place of escape, a refuge of some sort, soon became a prison and I was drowning in unfamiliar waters.
Another friend, to whom I would always run in times of personal crisis, rolled his eyes when I told him what I had told everyone else in our circle. “You always say that,” he said. “But you won’t be able to betray yourself.” He gave me a pen. “Give it back to me when and if you really mean what you said.”
It takes a certain amount of ego to be a good and productive artist. I have always thought perhaps I don’t have what it takes to be a proper writer, or that I am an impostor somehow. I am uncomfortable talking about my own work or the reason I write. I have no desire to challenge the world or to seek the meaning of life. What I am is an escape artist — I write to run away from all the things I wish to avoid in real life.
I think of all the one-hit wonders of the literary world who quit writing when the writing was good, among them: Arthur Rimbaud, JD Salinger and Raduan Nassar. Rimbaud went into writing because he wanted to change the world and then discovered the world was too old, too obtuse. After the publication of A Catcher in the Rye, Salinger went into isolation, even though he continued writing for his own personal consumption. Nassar dropped the pen and picked up a farming tool.
I’m no one-hit wonder. In fact, I am hardly any wonder at all. I still have my friend’s pen and he’s right: I’m still writing. I haven’t quite shaken off the feeling that perhaps I’m not cut out to be the sort of writer most writers aspire to be. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. TJP
This essay was originally published by The Jakarta Post in March 2017 with the same title.