This Is the Beginning of Writing

Lauren Elkin

Fall 2018

To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not—this is the beginning of writing.

—Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse





I often come across writers I love talking about the beginnings of what they do. Why and where it starts, what gets in its way. It’s a preoccupation of the essay, you might say. A trope. I suppose I’m only now noticing it because I’m at the beginning of a few projects, trying to decide which to devote myself to first. Each has its own hold on me; each requires the exclusion of the others. If I make a decision in any of several directions, that’s the next few years of my life.

I’m at the beginning of another kind of project too, a more personal one, a project of self-definition or self-assertion. It comes down to asking for more than I’ve had in my marriage, wondering if perhaps what I’ve been settling for is enough. Again: my future, and someone else’s, hang in the balance, here at the beginning—or is it somewhere toward the end?

There is someone off to the side, making it difficult to see what I have or could have, generating work that I didn’t count on or allow for. I won’t go toward this person, except in writing, but in writing, I am willing to go very far. I think.

The beginning of writing, like the beginning of love, is a period of risk.






Roland Barthes wrote a whole book about being kept in a state of unfulfilled longing by his erstwhile lover. He writes that it is futile to write to this lover, because the utopia or atopia of language (as he calls it) can never bridge the gap between them. He tries anyway.

Like Barthes, I do not believe that writing will cause me to be loved by this person on the side, but the attempt both reveals and conceals an impulse, a going-toward, that we all share: me, Barthes, and the side-person (that is, you).

Lauren Elkin is a writer, translator, and, most recently, the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017). She lives in Paris.

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