To What Do We Owe This Pleasure: On the Value of Not Writing

“The goal is not to make a story but to experience the whole mess.” C.D. Wright

I am standing in the laundromat (our machines in the basement broke down some time ago and we think we might buy a house so we don’t buy new machines), therefore while I’m in Kentucky, I could be in Brooklyn or Detroit or anywhere, because it is a laundromat. I’m folding near a few other women. A Taylor Swift song comes on and we all sort of bob our heads. I start to think about whiteness and feminism. None of us in this laundromat are white or male, at least not completely. I think about writing a poem, but it’s so hard to see where it’s going. I imagine the long trains my older brother and I used to watch each summer in Southern California. They came and went and we never knew what they carried. I fold the sheet the way I learned when I used to work for Martha Stewart, where once I wore my hair down to the office and a colleague said she thought my hair was “inappropriate for work.” The poem slips away, and Swift’s voice fades as I stack my towels into a neat pile the way I imagine regular adults might.


They say the average person has 49 thoughts a minute. When I meditate each morning I try to focus on the images on the back of my eyelids and let this take me over, though sometimes I start writing something without thinking. I push it out so I can keep going blank. When I say blank, I do not mean empty space, but rather a filled space, a completed space. I think of that quote from Anne Carson’s story in the recent New Yorker where she says “And yet the soul—how does it ever get peace in its mouth, close its mouth on peace while alive. To be alive is just this pouring in and out.” That’s how I think of this writing life; sometimes you are pouring in and sometimes you are pouring out.

A friend of mine was talking about Jonathan Franzen and how hard he works. How maybe the work is all that matters. I don’t believe that. The day, this day: cold and only a few noncommittal birds pecking at frozen blades of grass, one maniac sparrow hitting my office window and surviving just a few seconds ago, a friend talking about having a child, another one talking about a play she’s writing that’s set in space, which is good since we both know she’s always wanted to go to space, the dog sitting on the heater vent, the man I love texting me from only a few miles away about “banging.” This seems more important than the poems today, the books, the readings, the pouring out. Even if that’s not quantitatively true. No one will pay me for this collection of incalculable joys.


Another friend writes to say that the writing is hard, like torture sometimes. I understand. A new personal truth can come and destroy you, a memory, a look into what hurts hardest about the world. But I relay a story that Ross Gay told me, about how he once said to Alan Shapiro that writing was torture (in my mind they were playing basketball while this was happening, but I’m not sure if that’s true now that I write this). Alan Shapiro went on to describe torture, in detail—real torture—to Ross. Now, I think how Ross’s poems are so full of gratitude and light despite the ugliness of this universe. There should be pleasure, I think, in this recording, in this filling our mouths and emptying them again.

There are people who think the life of a writer is lonely. But I don’t think one has to be isolated to be an artist. Though I love to be alone. The empty field out there that’s not empty at all. The maple sapling naked in its shaking. To be able to isolate yourself completely from others, if you choose, is a privilege. I can envy it sometimes, shutting down the internet, taking the phone off the hook (what an antiquated metaphor now!), not needing others at all. But it’s not possible for me. Community, especially for women and writers of color, is essential to this work. We need to lay our heads on each other’s chests and cry and then descend down the well sometimes to pick each other up. “Here,” we say, “Grab this rope of paper and string I’ve made for you. It means I value you. Right now, in this life, your voice is valued.”

I lie to my students sometimes. I tell them I write every day. I don’t. I clean for a long time and think about things. I think about drones. And how we protested the war in Iraq back in 1991. And how I was such a thin girl in high school, but I thought I was fat. My high school boyfriend said I was “only fat from certain angles,” which was supposed to make me feel better, I think. I think about my years spent in theater and how I miss the camaraderie of the show, how art can bond us together. I think of dying. All the deaths. Mine. Yours. How scared I am about the planet and how good the spring will be when everything denies everything and blooms anyway. I think maybe I write about birds too much. Then a bird sits on the picnic table in front of my office window and stares at me like I’m an idiot. This is not a poem. This is not writing.


When I was five years old, I got locked in my grandparents’ chicken coop with my brother. We yelled and yelled, but no one could hear us. It wouldn’t have been that bad except for the vicious rooster charging at us over the hot canyon dirt of Orange County. When I calmed down, I realized my wrist was so small that it fit through the chicken wire. I unlatched the door and we were out. Later, I found out my grandfather on my father’s side lived in a chicken coop as a child when he first crossed the border. I suppose anything is possible if you can eventually find a way out. When we are not writing, we are calming ourselves down enough to pay attention to the exits and entrances and connections. Perhaps we can even unlatch the door on our own.

What is accountability? For a writer? For an artist? To whom do we owe something? There’s a sense among writers that the world is so messed up you can’t talk about elation, or that, as someone who has a voice, you have the duty to speak only about topics of great importance. I don’t always think that’s true. The average human being has about 55,000 thoughts a day: some of them are about injustice; some of them are about ketchup. At the laundromat, while I’m folding my sheets and thinking about race and life and writing and mortality and Taylor Swift and how dog hair multiplies and I think the internet is destroying us, I suddenly feel like there should be a permission slip for writers. Something you can sign for someone that says, “You don’t always have to write. You have permission to just be in the world and grieve and laugh and live and do your damn laundry. Writing comes when it comes, and it’s not the most important thing. You and all the little nuisances and nuances of life are what matter most. Don’t miss this gorgeous mess by always trying to make sense of it all.”

When I start poems I don’t know where they are going. I want to try to be truthful, but I also want the song to emerge. I can still hear the sound of the Southern Pacific train go by like it was progress. I can hear Ella Jenkins singing on the record player in the background. My brother and I would sit and watch for the caboose, thinking maybe it wouldn’t come. I’d get anxious because I wanted the satisfying feeling of the train being complete. Being finished. As if the ending is also an answer. (Although it rarely is; things end unsolved all the time.) Some trains were so long, almost as long as life it seemed, as they went by and by and by. I could stand on that canyon and yell to the train, and when the caboose finally came I’d swear it would be enough just to have seen it, to have been there as a witness.

And it was. A train poured into me years ago, and just now it poured out. What I mean is, there are times poems do not come and life is too heavy to be placed on the page, or life is so deliciously light and joyful you must suck it down before anyone notices. That is okay. You are still the writer watching that train, doing laundry, getting lost in this massive mess of minutes. There is value in this silent observing. There is value in the soul finding even the smallest moment of peace in its mouth.


Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books of poetry include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California.

01.24.16 by Ada Limón