June 27, 2017 § 23 Comments

By Melissa Ballard

Beginning in mid-2015, I broke a nearly-three-year run of rejections with a steady sequence of acceptances. When a writer friend helped me create a web page, I joked that I’d never again get an essay published. That was eight months ago, not that I’m counting. I have one “active” essay on Submittable, but at least six more in my files that are almost finished. Allison K. Williams’ “The Value of Getting Sh*t Done”–and common sense– tell me that one essay in my queue is not the way to change the situation. So, why can’t I finish?

I’m retired from a job in academic support at Oberlin College, where I worked with many students who had writer’s block. What advice would I have given them?

Step away from your draft

Do some free writing

Make a list or a word cloud or a sketch

Just do something, and see where it leads.

So I cleared my desk. I wrote the title of each essay on its own 3×5 card, and made notes about why I hadn’t finished it. Turns out I had perfectly valid reasons, even if only I could understand them. An essay about my dad’s last job, the one that may have caused his death (and my complicity therein) isn’t done because I’m waiting for an “e-mail with tech info about job from A.M.” Trust me, it’s essential. I’ve tabled another because I’m not sure I’ve adequately dealt with race issues.  And one just sounded “trite.” Maybe the one I haven’t submitted because I’m waiting for a “sign from the universe” is harder to defend, but the essay in question is much more about someone else’s story than it is mine, so I need to get it right.

At any rate, as soon as I’d finished filling out those 3×5 cards, I began working on one of the essays. The next day I finished it, and submitted it to “Modern Love” at the New York Times. They responded within 24 hours, and my essay will run next week.

That last paragraph is fiction. What I really did was toss the cards to the side, check Facebook, make some tea, and read a couple of chapters in a novel.

I haven’t yet finished any of those essays.

This is the way it goes. I am reminded, again and again, that nothing about writing (at least for me) is straightforward. It never turns out the way I expect it to, but I keep returning to my desk, telling myself that something will eventually happen. Sometimes I manage to believe it.

Instead of finishing one of my essays, I wrote this post. OK, I drafted it and it sat on my desktop for a couple of weeks. Two days ago, I worked on it during a timed writing session with the friend who helped me with my website. She said, as she sometimes does when I read a draft to her, “I love it. I can’t think of a thing you should change. Submit it now.” But I didn’t. I’ve been tinkering with it, trying to find a snappy ending.

“Three writers go into a bar” seems too obvious.

I can’t even type, “The secret of writing is…” without laughing.

But there’s another possibility: If you’re reading this now, it means I finally finished a piece. Maybe that’s my snappy ending.


Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before deciding higher education might be a good idea. Her essays appear in Brevity, Compose Journal, Full Grown People, Gravel and other publications. She just got the email about her dad’s job…ass in chair time.

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