(Choosing) To Be a Writer

Early in my senior year of college, my advisor, the writer Ann Lauterbach, asked me if I wanted to be a poet. When I told her that writing—especially poetry—as a career felt wholly unattainable, she urged me to imagine, if only for the year, that that was not the case.

Soon after, I began searching for writers to interview, to learn about their craft as well as the paths they took through their twenties. I wanted to know how to navigate the precarious years after college alongside an amorphous desire to write, to become a writer.

One of the writers I spoke with worked in restaurants while reading and translating in his free time, another immediately began pursuing an MFA, a third worked as an archivist for far longer than she intended, another hadn’t even begun writing.

When I devoured Ariel Levy’s recent memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, I found myself reflecting on these interviews and on the absence of a clear career path into writing. Levy’s memoir details the creation and destruction of an unconventional life as a writer. From her beginnings as an assistant at New York Magazine to the loss of her pregnancy while working as a journalist in Mongolia, her prose is profoundly clear. Even in the book’s most intimate moments, Levy writes with acute self-awareness and clarity of emotion: “Grief is another world. Like the carnal world, it is one where reason doesn’t work.” Through her unflinching honestly, Levy lays bare the world of her grief, offering a story far more complex and fraught than the one told in her New Yorker essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” on which the memoir is based. 

In her explication of her career, relationships, and grief, as well as the intersections between them, Levy continually returns to the idea of choice and her realization that sometimes, regardless of your choices, life isn’t controllable. In the memoir’s final chapter, she writes: “Maybe I would fall in love again, and I would still get to be a mother. Or maybe it was too late, and I had already chosen, inadvertently and incrementally, to be something else.” Levy envisions a future, at once multitudinous and full of possibility, yet subconsciously transformed through accumulated choices.

 “Each choice / measures the relation between freedom and fate,” Lauterbach writes in her poem “N/EST.” Like Levy, Lauterbach contends with the uncertain power of choice, the possibility that we have even less control over our lives than we imagine. As a writer early in my career, I find it helpful to dwell in the language of writers like Levy and Lauterbach, to consider the paths other writers have taken as I find my own. Sometimes a beautiful sentence is enough to reaffirm a love of writing, the choice to become a writer. In another excerpt from “N/EST’”: “to be a poet / is a constant iteration of choice / one word instead of another.”