Write to live (or, how not to die)

I used to watch my writing languish. Literally. Like some lazy do-no-good or a comatose soap opera actor waiting for a brain transplant. My ex, would offer to read something I’d poured myself into, hours of pen and paper, computer screen, and back to pen and paper, the cycle of writing and revising spinning until I deemed a piece worthy of sharing.

Knots in stomach, I would print out my latest masterpiece, tap it into a neat pile, corners meeting in a perfect stack, and sit it on the coffee or dining-room table. I made sure it looked natural, nothing askew, not to be mistaken for junk mail or lost under her sticky-note laden planner and work documents. A few days would pass, and each time I walked past, I would look to see if it had moved, or been touched for that matter. By the time a week rolled around, my writing would generally find itself underneath said junk mail, planner, and work documents, flailing its writerly non-existent arms, as it gasped for attention. After two weeks, some creased corners, a tumble or three to the floor, and a red wine stain accenting a coffee cup circle, I would pick up my work, shove it into an unmarked folder, then hide it away in a paper grocery bag, my version of a filing cabinet.

This scene played out too many times before I realized that if I wanted my writing to be treated as anything but an 8 ½ x 11 beverage coaster, I would have to find another place for it to land.

But that meant embracing my work as worthy of better treatment, or conversely, seeing her careless treatment for what it was, rather than sagging under the notion that those days, then weeks, were a reflection of how unworthy my writing was, of time, care, or any fate that didn’t include food stains as some shameful, and shaming, abstraction of a Yelp review. (On a scale of salsa blob to bourbon spill, how would you rate this post? It’s a toss-up, I know.)

If I was going to save my writing, I would have to save myself. I would never be able to put those pages out for someone to read until I accepted that my writing deserved more than the coaster-treatment. That as a writer, I deserved more.

An embarrassing number of fucked-up years passed before anything really changed (during which the ex outdid herself, but that’s shit-ton of other stories for a shit-ton of other posts), while a host of false starts wore on me, as a writer and as a human being.

It began with a private writing group that I helped organize, a short-lived sofa where my vagabond tales could crash. It was inspiring and invigorating, and it ended too soon, life getting in the way, as it will. Not long before the troupe disbanded, I was accepted to an MFA program, a lifetime dream come true. My writing had finally found a home with a name to it, full of respect and creative momentum. I was giddy.

Three months after my first residency, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer and forced to drop my courses. After surviving chemo, radiation, and a bilateral mastectomy, I made it back for my second residency, one of the best weeks of my life. Although my health only allowed me to take one class, I didn’t care. I was there, again, living my dream. My writing settled into its new home, held in high esteem. I think I was living what people call hope, or something like it.

Midway through the term, I received a firestorm of emails, followed by a torrent student chatter: The MFA program was shutting down due to financial malfeasance. We would complete that term and one final commencement.

Just like that, my writing home burned to the ground.

Thanks to the repercussions of my cancer treatments, my heath continued to deteriorate, culminating with an incident of gross, nearly-fatal medical malpractice (like the ex’s bounty of careless regard, another story for another day). My words, for lack of anywhere else to go, huddled in countless 3 x 5 notebooks of thoughts, pages upon pages of purging on my laptop, all hidden, all too real.

Even as my writing curled in on itself, too much, too raw, too damaged by misuse, friends, family members, health practitioners, even strangers I met only in passing, pressed me to tell my stories. If I had, in this outhouse of an economy, a grand for every time I’ve heard, “You need to write (a book) about that” and/or “That should go into your book,” I could afford the healthcare I really need. Not to mention, in true Virginia Woolf fashion, a room of my own and the ability to support myself. In the minds of everyone around me, it seemed, and sounded, so simple. But as with most things in life, a cooperative reality and actual execution don’t give of themselves so freely, and in fact, in my experience, they will just as often, and with glee, tell a person to go fuck themselves and figure it out. Or not.

For years I’d given blogging the hairiest of eyeballs. I have an MA in English, with enough credits to have another, if I’d like, and years of toiling made the very thought of putting my work out into the world for free seem like a sick joke. It left me bitter and defeated, and I refused on principle. I wouldn’t contribute to egalitarianism gone amuck. Rather than seeing a blog as a home for my work, I spat on what I perceived as a form of 21st century occupational homelessness.

It’s not so much that I was wrong. It was so much that I had no chance of staying on my feet in the middle of a tsunami, life, the world, communication, the craft of writing, all of it a wall coming straight for me, giving nary a fuck how much it hurt when it hit me, nor how great my panic when I began to drown.

As my stories piled up, lived experiences full of betrayal and loss and grief, those pages on the coffee table seemed sweet, if not naïve, cuddled up in their look-at-what-I-made-ness, longing for attention and approval. With each what-the-fuck shit storm, every you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me gut punch life had to offer, I felt myself thumb-screwed into someone I no longer recognized.

So, I did what anyone in my situation would do: I began not-blogging on Instagram. I also read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, whose first letter cut through the bullshit to my very core: “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”

I realized that in order to do right by those ignored stories from the coffee table, I had to survive my own life long enough to write about them. If I wanted them to find a home, I had to create it with an adjusted perspective. No matter how, no matter where. I had to find out that in order to write, I had to live, and in order to live, I had to write. I now know that it was, and is, as simple as this: Write or die. Write or die. Write or die.

And at least for today, I choose to live.

Leave a Reply