Noelle Sterne

Demons, like invisible mosquitoes, circle, alight, nip, bearing germs of frustration, depression, despair. They say, You must do it or you will die.

I try to ignore them and imagine my life without writing. Busyness of client editing, feeling important and needed—poor substitute for the ideas that burn. Busyness of righteous checking off a few more items on the endless household efficiency list—poor substitute for accomplishment that feeds. Busyness with sanctioned leisure activities that supposedly refresh—poor substitutes for soul nurturing.

The demons pick at my scabs of barrenness. Notes, folders, and long lists of titles that surface at midnight or dawn lie dormant around me, waiting, like barren women with cribs, for filling. The few completed pieces sleep in alphabetical order in the file cabinet, proud of publication or at least submission, awaiting a hopeful verdict.

The demons circle.

Why do I write? Joan Frank replies: “Because You Have To.”[1] But why do I have to? The demon-mosquitoes. Maybe they hibernate for a few hours while I’m eating or watching a thriller, but then they attack again at any hour, landing and biting, carrying seeds of anticipated regret: What if I stopped? How would I feel?

First answer: Shame. Ashamed that I didn’t have the proverbial self-discipline, strong enough desire, courage, will to overcome fear and excuses so that I just sit there, wait and, finally, plunge. I lose faith in Richard Wilbur’s wise words about creating: “Step off into the blank of your mind. Something will come to you.”[2]

Second answer: Depression. An endless sliding spiral. A never-ignored or silenced screaming inside. A helplessness to stop the engulfing decline.

Third answer: Betrayal. Betrayal of myself and what’s been in me since early childhood. John Lee Hooker had it right: “I heard papa tell mama let that boy boogie-woogie / It’s in him and it got to come out.” [3]

The demon-mosquitoes dictate: It’s got to come out.

Sure, I’m thrilled at—finally—an acceptance for publication (“They like me!”). But publishing, and even checks, lose their savor after seven minutes. The next title must be crept up on, explored, stepped off into, its essence pulled out.

I learn over and over—the sustenance and bliss hide in the writing. Engaging with my mind. Feeling the visceral pleasure of longhand or typing. Capturing the essence of a face, a gait, an exchange, a feeling. Taking in the unbelievable magic, on page or screen, of my imaginings as they appear before my eyes. Yielding to the incomparable sense of time totally suspended, all troubles gone, all pains subdued.

Why do I write? Because, despite the devil-gnats, the only true existence is the work and me.



[1] Joan Frank, Because You Have To: A Writing Life. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.
[2] Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep,” New and Collected Poems. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, p. 158.
[3] John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillen’,” Boogie Chillen’ (1948), Lyrics, boogie-chillen-lyrics-john-lee-hooker.html