Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.
This essay was recently written in response to a challenge from my freshman essay writing class students. Their final assignment was to write an essay of fewer than 1,200 words in any borrowed form of their choice. They asked me to complete the assignment with them, and to share it in our workshop as my own “final”. I try to be a good sport, so here’s what I wrote them—a tribute to both the agony of adolescence and the power of literature (with a little teacher snark thrown in for good measure).
The first book I ever really loved was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The copy I had was my grandmother’s. It had a cocoa-colored fabric cover. Its pages smelled like an attic. I read it sitting in the back of my middle school’s library when I should have been in the cafeteria eating lunch. That cafeteria was a war zone, though, and I was too fragile that year to fight. Instead, when everyone else jostled through the wide, florescent-lit corridors, following the smells of wilted lettuce and cooked meat, I retreated to the library and found my friends again—Meg and Beth and wonderful Jo.
Here’s the secret though: I never finished the book. I don’t remember exactly where I left off in the story, nor why, but I know I abandoned the book the way I abandoned so much else that year as I worked instead to hold onto what little adolescence was leaving me of my identity and my will to survive.
Do I have guilt about that now? Not really. I’ve become a short story writer, so I’m hardly one to quibble about cutting a plot short. I got what I needed from Little Women—comfort, empathy, a sense that the world beyond me was still beautiful and worth my attention. That’s the value of any book, I think—the way its typed words on a page make you look up at the world in front of your face and choose to stay in it. And sometimes just a sentence is enough to do that, isn’t it?
A: No, you don’t always have to read the whole thing.
Q: How long does this essay have to be?
I started writing because I had failed at everything else. I wanted, first, to be an artist. My grandmother had been a painter. By the time I knew her, she’d forgotten how to paint, though. She’d forgotten the word brush, the word canvas, the word granddaughter. When my parents took me to visit her in the nursing home where she lived, she spent most of the visit staring at the rectangular window on the far side of her room.
It wouldn’t occur to me to wonder what she was watching—or maybe what she was looking for—until after she had died. Then, years later, I stood in front of her easel and used her old brushes and tried to see with her eyes. Pay attention! I chided myself when nothing materialized in my mind. But I wasn’t a painter.
After that, I tried hard to be a dancer, but I wasn’t that either, no matter how hard I worked and wanted it.
I wasn’t a beauty or a genius, a coach or a counselor.
I wasn’t athletic or logical or even particularly interested in much of anything at all.
For the longest time, I just wasn’twasn’twasn’twasn’t.
And then, there it was—writing. Me with a page and an idea. Observation and language and narrative. Storytelling. And my certainty was like the pulse in my veins.
A: You’ll know when you’ve got it right. Until then, keep working.
Q: Why should I care about the formatting requirements?
When I was a kid, my family moved almost every year. That kind of transient life makes for a rough childhood. It requires either learning how to fully conform to the culture of each new neighborhood—each new school—or learning to detach from expectations and float solo through the world. I should have known from the outset that conforming wouldn’t work for me for long. I navigated elementary school fairly well, but then came the seventh grade. Suddenly, the rules were different—more rigid, and more punishing. I didn’t know how to fit. I tried, but I was far too angular, too pointed, and too emotionally porous to squeeze myself into the tight square of middle school culture. The harder I worked to narrow myself, to smooth out the quills and the curves, the more I disappeared. By late winter, I was a wisp of myself, a bare breath. By spring, I was almost entirely gone.
My memory of that period is murky. I remember the startlingly beautiful canopy of cherry blossoms that seemed to burst directly out of the low gray sky that spring. I remember the huge bouquet of pink peonies my mother set in a vase on my bedside table. I remember one sunny afternoon at a park overlooking Puget Sound when I finally felt my own legs under me again—the first time in months. It was like waking up after a long sleep. Like coming up for the first breath of air after swimming the length of a cold, black lake. It hurt, but I was surviving.
Now what I want to tell my younger self is simply Stop. You’ll be okay. The good stuff defies limitations, and the best adults are the ones who couldn’t ever figure out how to draw themselves inside the lines anyway.
A: Forget the formatting when it doesn’t fit you.
Q: I don’t have anything to write about. How do I start this assignment?
I’m currently in the middle of a writerly dry-spell. Nothing I write down is good enough, interesting enough. No idea—no matter how compelling—has managed to sink its hook into my forehead the way I know it must if I’m going to successfully author it. A good story comes at you like a knife blade, like a needle, like love. I’m waiting for that, and while I wait I’m in a familiar misery.
The worst dry-spell I’ve ever experienced followed the publication of my first book. The sudden and unexpected success of the book was a gut-punch. How would I ever replicate something I hadn’t quite meant to do? What would happen when I published a second book and everyone realized I wasn’t actually “promising,” as my reviews had said, but just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill bore? What would happen when I never published that second book, and no one noticed or cared?
Since I don’t believe in writer’s block, I kept writing through my doubt, but the writing process was more daily self-flagellation exercise than productivity. I became anxious. I drank too much coffee and ate too little. I stopped sleeping. No matter, I told myself. Writers write. And so I kept writing at a furious pace, churning out pages and pages of indulgent blather.
The whole thing finally ended with a trip to the emergency room after a night spent in frightened panic while my heart did an imitation of a hummingbird in the cage of my chest.
Maybe what you’re expecting me to say now is that the lesson of this story is forgiveness, stillness, resting when necessary. But, nope. You’re wrong. The lesson here is that writing is sometimes hard work—maybe even work that nearly kills you. But there’s always something to say, even if it’s just the story of your own failure and collapse.
A: Keep writing. You’ll figure something out.
Q: I forgot about the assignment. Can I have an extension on the deadline?