Anna McLoud Gibbs

Loss for words

For some, COVID-19 meant time and energy; it led to a surge of creative output. For others – and I fell into this category – the pandemic has been stifling. I hid away from the virus in my house, but I couldn’t hide from its invasion as a subject. Every time I sat down to write creatively, I felt like I needed to say something about Covid. Even if I didn’t want to write about it, Covid always came down my pen’s pipeline, and yet I had nothing I could say about it. My creative attempts read like my text exchanges with friends: “This is so crazy!” “Indeed, crazy!” I could not find any other words. It made me feel like a failure as a writer: if I could not write to capture this event — the epitome of universal, in many ways — what was I doing? Why could I not make neat the mess of everything going on? Wasn’t that my job as a writer?

I used to believe that a writer is someone who turns to words when they feel lost. A writer’s defense mechanism is to write; indeed, it is all a writer knows. It is what I did when I was thirteen and my mom died of cancer. I started writing in journals every night, trying to capture the indescribable feelings I was grappling with: grief, coupled with puberty and desperate crushes on multiple boys. I was not at a loss for words; I let them come. Perhaps they were not the right words, but they were the words I needed to say in each moment. 

This definition of a writer was yet another thing I lost this year, though perhaps it has happened more gradually than I realized. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself biting my tongue. I said fewer words because I worried about them being the right ones. I became a skilled second-guesser. Even though I myself had experienced loss, I began to doubt that I had any place assuming that I could understand a friend suffering a similar loss. Perhaps growing up showed me that people experience things differently and not to assume — but I don’t think this was quite it. Rather, I became concerned with the universal. If everyone knows this feeling, how can I speak to it? The connectivity of human experiences didn’t make it easier for me to write; instead, it became a stumbling block. No longer could I say anything but “it’s crazy, right?” Grief, pain, confusion, fear — they became expansive and abstract, and I grappled with any claim to them.

There’s something both sobering and comforting when you realize that your experiences are largely repeated. A lot of my time is spent reading depressive poems written by angsty teenagers on Write the World, an online platform that I work for as a program coordinator and writing advisor. One of my jobs is to moderate the writing on the site to keep both our writers and readers safe. I’m often struck by the similarity between their writing and my own that I produced in eighth grade. I recognize their sadness, their questions. I recognize the way that they write about their pain. I used to be just like you. Will they someday be just like me? 

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s how to hold two truths as once. This year has been contradictory in all senses – isolating and unifying, confining and liberating — accompanied by daily hypocrisy from our leaders. I look for the comfort in the truth that human lives trod similar paths and feel similar things. Oh, to not be alone. To see yourself in the other. And as I hold this truth, I try to balance it with the other truth, which is this: I do have new words to utter. I’m a repeat, plus some. Perhaps all writers are, in fact, translators.

And what makes a writer? One way to be a writer, surely, is simply to write words down on the page. I believe that. But I don’t think that dedication and persistence — nor the profound and prodigious — are the only markers of a writer. 

For me: I feel most like a writer through my grandma’s eyes. “Anna,” she would text me. “I have been reading your essays and poems this morning…. tears lurching in my chest… Today I reread all of your poems and essays…” She kept my writing in a blue folder on her desk. “Next time you come over,” she texted. “We can read them together.”