Many years ago I was sitting with a jazz musician in an auditorium when a song by Norah Jones came on the loudspeaker. He asked me what I thought of her music. I told him I liked it. He shook his head. “I can’t use it,” he said.

Ever since then I have kept his words in the forefront of my mind whenever I begin an essay. They get me through drafts when sentences that felt like evidence of genius the night before reveal themselves to be crimes against paper in the light of day. And they get me back on track at the end of long dry spells, “who the hell do you think you are” stretches when I wonder what I could possibly have to contribute to a conversation I desperately want to join.

When I’m writing well, it’s because I’m convinced that there is someone out there who can use what I’m offering, that my writing has the potential to make my reader feel less alone. As a reader, I know that every single piece of writing that has ever meant anything to me I have been able to use not only to improve my own writing, but even more to temper loneliness and gain insight into the world. For me, writing is about trying to give back, and make something useful.

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Emily Bernard is the author of Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, winner of the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose, and Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White. She is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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