If I Wrote

Elisa Madina

Sunlight in a cafeteria, 1958, by Edward Hopper.

She is good at being a writer. She is up early and after two black coffees, makes sure to look out the window. She prepares by getting little things done, scanning emails and headlines, then Googles Chinese ginger jars for five minutes, meditates for twenty. She might exercise, briefly. By twelve or one o’clock she slowly pours honey inside a kefir bottle, shakes it and drinks. At two o’clock she eats some almonds and four corn cakes covered in salt and olive oil.

She starts writing and when she does, she hears hidden music or the opposite, a silence it takes you a moment to notice – as if you paused because something felt different before realising it was the sound of all the waves around the world having paused.

She does have a job, a full-time and demanding one, yet sometimes spends half or more of her working day writing. She doesn’t know whether she is responding to her true calling and this is something to celebrate or whether she is procrastinating from work to a deeply immoral degree. Predictably Joan Didion’s louche writer life has left its mark on her imagination. She also wants a sprawling Upper West Side apartment and to spend summer afternoons watching Tenko with her writer husband before sliding out for a low-key neighborhood dinner, Chinese, and cold, cold wine. But she suspects the day job she ignores makes her an ambitious writer – if she quit her drive would disappear.

What would her colleagues say if they found out how much of the day she spent scribbling notes about masturbation? Look, she would say seriously, I’m just trying to make sure there’s someone for me to bump into in my dark alley, late at night.


It’s a crowded table, says The Guardian about aspiring millennial women writers, especially post-pandemic. So, she needs to be smart and plan her USP. How should a writer be?

She wants the trajectory and hope of Jenny Offill, not fragmentary but leaving some gaps. She wants the striking strangeness of Clarice Lispector, the cold violence of Otessa Moshfegh, the seeds that Deborah Levy planted in your mind. The little jaggedy glimpses of the world naked that Virginia Woolf found, the urgent truths of Audre Lorde, the gender insights of Elena Ferrante and Rachel Cusk. Some feelings from Anaïs Nin, but without being elliptical. The diamond-hard intellect of Anne Carson, and moments of sparseness from Alice Munro, just when most effective. At the same time, touches of the maximalism of many American male writers she admired and hated, but done her own way, not annoying, and not showing off. Though she absolutely, definitely, wants the tumbling of space and time of the end of a Ben Lerner novel.

Reading is writing, she sometimes feels. The more she reads the more frequently small flashes of lightning interrupt her while she does other things, little rains of ideas she writes down. And reading some writers, she feels she already has everything she needs and should immediately and simply write what is inside, without effort and directly from the centre.

But it isn’t that simple. Do I really have to be sarcastic? Where do things stand these days re irony again? Must check, she thinks. Will I have to give solipstic webinars or write pithy things on the internet for other authors to see? Must I be unhappy and jealous of other writers? Is there another way? She doesn’t want to write an antisocial millennial novel or autofiction, or to write about Twitter. It’s easier to destroy than to create, and she would do the latter. And she doesn’t want twee negative space or faux solemnity like in the whiney short stories she saw online. There would be real words and sentences.

She wants to be self-aware but still able to say something. Serious and funny and somehow moving towards a truth, giving a slow reveal of beauty as irony falls away, none of it obvious to the reader as it happens. She wants to be a writer’s writer, full of easter eggs, but not to write a critic’s novel too clever by half. She also wants to be democratic, leaving truth on the page for anyone to find and understand. She would talk about social issues without needing to mention she worked in a coop. Never earnest, solemn, embarrassing. Her writing would make people stand up, not sit down.

It would be humorous but not trying to make friends, unfolding slowly with some light but not self-consciously so, acknowledging all corners of possibility and their contradictions and importantly, doing this with unexpectedness thrown around like splashes of neon paint.

“Art is always moving towards clarity,” said Mark Rothko, “my paintings' surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles, you can find everything I want to say.” Her writing would be like this. Like Rothko, over her career, she would slowly shed more things until only colour and the universal were left. Basically, it would be brilliant.


She thinks about writing her own book reviews before the books, but not in a vain way. Just to explore. If she wrote, she would also give interviews; people would want to profile her.

When asked why she wrote, she would say on the one hand it integrates me, knits together the whole of me, but on the other it fragments me further, so it’s a paradox. Pause. Through writing she became a second person and found parallel worlds; if she had an argument with her partner or was disappointed in something he said she could write it down, change it and use it. Writers are liars, manipulators, we know that.

But in fact every thinking person is a liar, she would say. To live on this plane is to lie, because it is to choose a person to be and leave another behind, inside. Other lives are secrets we all hold, so to write is not to deceive but to share these in the open. So, in fact, writers are the only honest people left. “Would you not like to try all sorts of lives,” said Katherine Mansfield, “one is so very small,” she would quote. That is the secret rush of writing, the cheating of life – except there’s no dishonesty in it but only truth – the interior and ultimate kind.

Her only recurring dream – she has two but the other is very hard to describe – is that she writes, literally, pours words from her head onto page after page like vomit or a waterfall, the story telling itself as if she were releasing and recording something ancient within herself. She would also mention that.

The problem is that life takes on so many shapes that you need a reliable narrator for your own, she would say, but there isn’t one. It can’t be us – we could attempt to narrate but it doesn’t work, you can’t tell what your story is from the inside. But then, no one else lives your life so they can’t do it either. Maybe the most you could hope for is to write something and start a conversation, isn’t life a conversation? But this doesn’t feel like enough and maybe – they are still asking her why she writes – she always sought judgement on her life and actually, her own.

My writing helped address, circuitously, a secret shame I had. She would paraphrase, loosely, John Berger: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…the surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

All my life I had this disease, she would say. (The journalist would not interrupt.) I sought an unnamed male witness to the edges of my existence, to my thoughts, originality, normality, expansiveness, weaknesses, humour, vulnerability, discipline. I didn’t even need a reaction, just for him to see me. Yet all along I knew it didn’t work; I was looking for a man with a range so full that they could see mine, when I already knew it was women’s understanding that was limitless. Writing helped me chip away at the male panoptical tower. I became excited to write for unknown audiences where women sat.

And eventually, she would continue, for no audience. It is the shelved, comfortably unsent stories that make a writer. Because beyond anything, writing is how I learnt that life goes on with only you existing throughout it, and how I made my life for me. With me as the only thread, mathematically how could there be another other witness of interest? Said with a knowing smile. So in intermittent celluloid moments, when I asked myself what to do with so much life, I wrote – I wrote to understand myself, and then I wrote myself.

It is in writing, she would say, that a little transcendent flip happens, when you realise there are no contradictions and that what you thought was fragmentation is continuum. Great writing makes you say at first, how is that world possible, I want to live in it and then, wait, I already do.

Because to be a writer is to know that things coexist; that ambivalence does not from any angle mean an average, but two or more things simultaneously, and that that is all of life. That would be the end of the interview.

Elisa Madina

Elisa Madina is a writer living in Berlin. Her work has been published in Feminist Review and West Trestle Review, and is forthcoming in Rise Up Review.

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