Writer’s Block

Drawing of two women sitting in chairs, separated by low, round table, in a space with floor-to-ceiling windows. The younger woman holds a notebook and looks a little apprehensive; the older woman looks serene.
Giselle Potter

Spring had come, but I wasn’t enjoying it. Although my window in North Quad had a view of the deep greens, I avoided looking outside. When I did, I got lost in the shadowed glen, awakening from my daydreams with a start minutes, or an hour, later.

The pile of reading for my courses — and even worse, my unfinished thesis — surrounded me with recriminations.

Unlike me, my closest friends were not graduating that year. They still gathered at midnight around the Louis statue to sip illegally acquired vodka and talk literature, philosophy and life, without the pressure of making instant meaning out of any of it. This made me feel lonelier than usual.

I did not want to go to law school or med school. I wanted to write, but I had no idea how to go about it. After halfheartedly applying to graduate schools to study literature, I had been relieved to be rejected. To be honest, I really did not want to face the world outside.

Around Easter break, a friend who edited a campus literary magazine told me Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of the award-winning memoir “The Woman Warrior,” was coming to campus. He knew I loved her work and suggested I interview her for the magazine. I quickly agreed. I wanted to meet her and also, at least for a couple of hours, stop panicking about my thesis.

Hong Kingston spoke for an hour to an audience of professors and graduate students while I hid at the back of the room. She was erudite and brilliant and wise. My professors asked her complicated questions about literature, form and culture. She answered with knowledge and wit. When I first read “The Woman Warrior,” I instantly realized I wanted to write like her, with power and passion and compassion. Now, watching and listening to her, I knew I wanted to be her.

After her talk was over, she and I sat in a room near the president’s office, one of those spaces that undergraduates rarely enter, the ones with floor-to-ceiling windows, thick carpets and innocuous but expensive art on the walls. I took notes while she discussed writing and her work.

After I’d asked all my questions, Hong Kingston looked at her watch and told me we still had time — perhaps we could just talk until someone came to get her. She gently put me at ease, asking about my writing, confirming there was no “right” way to tell a story, there was not even a “right” story to tell. Finally, I summoned all my chutzpah and asked if I could apply to the creative-writing graduate program she headed.

She took a deep breath and was silent for a long, excruciating moment. “Of course,” she said, “but tell me what you write.”

I don’t know how I answered her. I do recall thinking I had heard creative-writing programs not only taught you how to write but what to write. Did I say something like that to her? I’m not sure. Strange that I remember every word that left her mouth that afternoon but have no memory of what I said.

She persisted. “What stories do you want to tell?” she asked.

I said something, but with an ever-deepening feeling I was making a fool of myself. She heard me out, then suggested that perhaps I was not ready for a graduate program. The awful feeling got worse.

Finally, someone came to take her to her next appointment. As she gathered up her things, she turned to me, pressed my hand in her soft, delicate ones and murmured some advice. “Go live,” she said. “Writing will happen when you do.”

It did.

Sunny Singh, who grew up in India, Pakistan and the United States, writes novels and nonfiction, including a 2018 biography of Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. She teaches creative writing and English literature at London Metropolitan University.