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Can't Write – Julia Haymaker '22


I ruffle through my bag until I find the worn out navy blue book. Pausing to glance at the cover, I see the disembodied face, with its pair of creepy eyes staring back at me, and the green tear trickling down toward the mishmash of flashing red, orange, yellow, and green carnival lights. As we begin our Harkness discussion on The Great Gatsby, I yawn and start fidgeting with my pencil, picking at the pink eraser stuff on the end of it, while the student next to me blabers on and on about East Egg and West Egg, old money vs. new money, how the self-made millionaires remain inferior to those that inherited their wealth, and how by the end, Gatsby, Wilson, and Myrtle, those who die, all came from a much lower social class. Then another student picks up rambling on about class permanence, and rigid social structures, the disillusionment in the American Dream, as seen in the Jazz Age, bringing dissatisfaction to those who pursue it, due to its unattainable nature. As the class segues into analyzing the other characters: Nick, and whether or not we can consider him a reliable narrator, Jordan, and her questionable past, with rumors of her cheating in golf tournaments, Daisy and her voice full of money, Gatsby, “borne back ceaselessly into the past” I stop listening.

A few days later, our teacher says “write an essay on the symbolism of an object in the book,” and I choose to do mine on Gatsby’s mansion. I start the essay writing process, after a long school day, slumped on the cushioned leather couch in my living room; I flip through the curled pages of my paperback, eventually I find eight quotes on Gatsby’s mansion, and type up five pages brainstorming ideas, about how the mansion represents Gatsby’s wealth, his social class, and the American dream, as I remembered the others had said in class. The next day, when I talk to my teacher, he tells me my ideas are unoriginal, and that I need to “think outside the box,” and give the reader a fresh new perspective. I spend my Sunday afternoon on it, my lower back starts to hurt as I sit there thinking for too long, stuck, with a mental block. I attempt a rough draft, write fourteen sentences, then delete them after realizing they don’t go past summarizing the text and quoting long passages. I write some more, on how the mansion represents an unachievable dream, a trap and a curse. How Gatsby’s home became “haunted with ghosts of the past,” how it tied him to his old dream, making it seem possible, giving him false hope, and leading him to his doom. My hands hover over the keyboard, my thumb hitting the spacebar at regular intervals, its touch smooth, fingertips pressing down on the letters, the return, tab, shift, and delete keys. But halfway through I find that I have nothing more to add, and my essay does not meet the minimum page requirement. Instead of delving deeper into my analysis, and building off of what I have, I decide to broaden my topic to all the characters' homes mentioned in the book, and I realize too late that my thesis no longer works, I’ve ruined everything.

Over the years, I have had to do other types of essays, too. I remember writing an argumentative essay in middle school, blaming the mother for Jing-mei’s quitting the piano in the short story “Two Kinds.” In eleventh grade, I rewrote the end of the Scarlet Letter. I wrote personal essays: one on being a teenage girl, another imitating Emerson’s friendship essay, and another interviewing my mother to then retell her story. With each of these, I hit a new low. But I hated writing poetry the most. In seventh grade, as part of an end of year project, I wrote a lame, emotional poem, “My Pumpkin,” based on a true story of a little pumpkin plant I once had, but that died a few weeks before Halloween. Flash forward to 11th grade, and I still could not do better. I wrote haikus, free verse poems, and sonnets, but each time my verses made no sense.

I pretend like I don’t care, but outside of school, I dream of having the talent to write and tell stories like those crowding the six shelves of my wooden bookcase. As a kid, I would read sitting on the hard splintered bench at school during recess, on the couch when I got home from school, and over the weekend. I read during the school breaks and on vacation. In the Parisian suburb of Saint-Mande, curled up on one of my aunt’s armchairs, I read Jean Claude Mourlevat’s Le Combat d’Hiver, that blends the harsh and real with the fantasy genre, leaving the reader with a haunting tale of Milena, Bartolomeo, Helen, and Milos heartwarming friendship, as they risk their lives to join the fight against tyranny, to bring back hope to those oppressed and victim to the barbaric practices of the time. Timothée de Fombelle’s series Vango, set in the 1930’s, full of mystery, with a fast paced, action packed plot. Crisscrossing all of Europe via train, boat, and even the Graf Zeppelin airship, the main character, accused of crimes he did not do, flees and becomes a fugitive. His daring escapade takes him from the Parisian rooftops, to the Aeolian Islands off Sicily, to Moscow, New York City, Germany, Scotland… as he attempts to trace the secrets of his shrouded past, and prove his innocence. I read Christelle Dabos’ Passe Miroir, Anne-Laure Bondoux’ L’Aube Sera Grandiose… I read these, and wished I could write stories of my own. Yet I still avoid writing, pretending to not have the time. First, I have to do school work, college apps, house chores… I do not get to writing, the last item on my list of things to do.

Yet once, I wrote, for a full week while backpacking in the Pyrenees with my mother and father, in the summer of 2017. At each refuge, or traditional mountain hut or hostel we stopped at for the night, I pulled out the little blue notebook with a big heart on it, that my aunt had given me before we left. I wrote, sitting cross legged on a hard bunk bed, feeling the soft breeze flowing in from the open window. This morning, at around six, we left the refuge Beau Soleil, after filling the water bladders of our backpacks to the two liter mark, and slipping on our sturdy hiking boots. We followed GR10 trails that climbed, zigzagging up the mountains, and every so often I had to stop, to catch my breath, or because of a side stitch. We slithered through the valley of the Marcadeau, passed by thunderous cascades sparkling in the sunlight, rambled through patches of sweet smelling meadow, with yellow buttercups, white hellebores, and blue trumpet gentianes sprinkled in the lush wildgrass, we crossed over swift but shallow streams, passed by stunted pines, and saw cows grazing near the path, and some mules when nearing the refuge of Wallon.

The next evening, sitting in the dining room area of the refuge Gypaede, wrapped in a soft wool blanket, I gazed out the window at the star-studded sky, and contemplated those thousands of celestial bodies of hydrogen and helium, mere specks of light fired up high above, to my squinting eyes. My mother came and said I should go to bed, but instead, I went to get my pencil and notebook. I wrote about how we had wandered up to the craggy summits, not far from where Le Grand Vignemale stands, the highest peak of the French Pyrenees. The terrain had become rough, the uneven ground at times hard and sun baked, at other times muddy from the rain, the ragged serpentine trails steep, narrow, and in some places, not well marked. We had gone through rock-strewn terrain, with patches of melting snow on the slopes. Nearing the summits, we had felt the wind blowing with such might, that we struggled to keep going, but still managed to scramble over the rocks, and reach the refuge Bayssellance, the highest of refuges, that has all of its supplies brought by helicopter.

I jotted down my memories of the Cirque de Gavarnie, its overgrown meadows, home to many marmots, and its famous grande cascade waterfall. The thunderstorm, as we waited under the awning of a store in the village of Gavarnie for the rain to stop, and our bus to show up, watching the enclosure across the street in which wide-eyed horses whined, swishing their tails, thumping their hooves, in fear of the thunder and lightning. In the days following, we explored other parts of the Pyrenees mountains. I scribbled notes about the village of Barege, and the hike up to the Neouvielle natural reserve, its granite peaks, flocks of sheep jangling their bells, and going up to higher elevations, above the clouds on foggy days, its refuge de la Glêre, and its high altitude lakes. I wrote about the tiny hidden path we discovered, coming down from the mountains of the Neouvielle, that took us into the heart of the dense vegetation growing on the mountainside, where no other hikers ventured.​​

As Annie Dillard notes in her “Write Till You Drop” essay, “no manipulation is possible in a work of art, but every miracle is.” Those artists who dabble in eternity, or who aim never to manipulate but only to lay out hard truths, grow accustomed to miracles.” In that little blue notebook, I wrote, for the first time, carefree. I wrote because I did not have to, because the Pyrenees inspires a sense of awe, because I wanted to cherish those memories.


Art by Katelyn Wang '23

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