On Making Memoir

Memoir is getting naked in front of a room full of strangers and saying, “Here are my stretch marks, here are my fat rolls, here is my cellulite, and here is the irritating boil on my ass and my reoccurring chin hair.”

One is not allowed to wear Spanx, utilize Instagram filters or self-tanner in memoir. To be authentic, the author has to expose it all — the lovely, the ugly, the funny, and the humiliating. That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

In revealing one’s experiences – joys, accomplishments, trials, and traumas – the writer is exposed not only to strangers, but to loved ones and friends. It is one thing to stand in front of strangers – unapologetic in one’s nakedness. It is a whole other thing to say, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Mom! Check out this foot-long stretch mark. No, it’s cool. It’s out there. Anyone can just Google my name and see it. Aren’t you proud?”

That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public. It makes my thumb freeze up over the “Share” button on Facebook when a piece I am proud of is accepted for publication — fearing not only criticism and judgement, but also praise and that confusing-without-the-benefit-of-tone-or-facial-expression response of “Wow!”

However, it is not just my exposure that I need to be concerned with. As a memoirist, I have a moral responsibility to the other people I write about. I can justify showing the world my naked ass without the benefit of Spanx, but I cannot justify lifting my aunt’s skirt over her head, regardless of how important her exposure is to telling my own story authentically.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete. That love has taken on many forms over the years — puppy love, obsession and control, unrequited love, abuse, lost love, and motherly love — but the love I always found most easy to access was baited with sex. The psychological, biological, and even astrological reasons for this are some of the subjects I explore in my writing. To write memoir well (to counter that impression of navel-gazing confession by expertly swinging between various theories and confession, so as not to bore the reader), one must ground one’s personal experience with something more solid and research-based.

Unfortunately, this psychologically driven exploration of my life and behaviors leads to the inevitable exposure of others. My father, my step-father, my mother, my friends, my children, my grandfather, my grandmother, my siblings, and my lovers are all placed under a flaw-revealing blacklight. I may be holding that blacklight over my own head (giving myself the most exposure), but they are revealed in the ambient light. They are also reduced to their relationship to me. Their memories and experiences are not fully explored and explained. They are incomplete.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public.

This moral responsibility I feel for my characters can be debilitating. I am not afraid to expose my rapists, my abusers, my bullies. As Anne Lamott so wisely stated in her book Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But it is a different matter to expose the sins of my family, their dark secrets, and the roles they may or may not have played in my psychological deformities.

Teachers of memoir writing offer some common techniques to counter this particular struggle. One is to change the names of the characters, and the other is to create a composite character (a character made up of traits from multiple people). These techniques are useful when one is writing about one’s high school bully, best friend, or even a lover (sometimes), but one cannot often disguise one’s parents, family members, or children this way. They will recognize their own cellulite or odd moles, regardless of the fake mustache applied to the lip of their character.

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share, despite how it affects me, my life, and my relationships. I have changed the names of the characters. I have chopped and edited important scenes. I have attempted to convince myself to submit it as fiction, but I can’t.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete.

One might wonder why I bother to write memoir at all. The struggles seem to outweigh the benefits. Why do I put myself or those I love through all of this? Why not just write my story and submit it as fiction? I guess the simple answer is because I truly believe in the power of memoir — specifically, its ability to give others the courage to speak the unspeakable and to allow them to be vulnerable in the face of my vulnerability. Memoir validates my memories and experiences while also validating the memories and experiences of others. All of the anxiety I experience while writing, submitting, reading, and publishing my memoir is temporarily relieved when I receive confirmation of this validation from someone who has read and strongly related to my work. There is an instant intimacy created through our related experiences. And is it not intimacy that I ultimately crave?

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share.

My first public reading of memoir was in a packed coffee shop filled with my graduate school professors, my fellow students, a few of my friends, and my oldest son. My voice shook through the entire first page; I couldn’t look up from the overly-familiar-from-revision words on the page. The audience laughed, gasped, and “awwww-ed” in all of the right places. And despite my certainty that I would have a heart attack in the middle of this written reenactment of my rape and suicide attempt, I didn’t. After stepping down from the stage to the supportive applause of the familiar crowd, a handsome middle-aged woman in a broom skirt and an oversized knit sweater approached me. She had tears in her kind eyes. “You are incredibly brave,” she said as she embraced me in a surprisingly strong, sandalwood-scented hug. “I experienced something very similar in my teens and I found your story inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with me.” She said all of this as if we were the only two people in the room, and for a moment, it felt like we were.

I have had other moments like this after I have publically read or posted my work. Some express their shared experiences to me in a private message on Facebook, some approach me personally (shy and refreshingly sincere), some confess to me in drunken interactions at the bar. But regardless of how they do it, I feel a powerful sense of validation from this solidarity and shared vulnerability. They see me and I see them, fully and completely — my flawed fellow humans, naked and unapologetic.

top photo by Mohammad Gh on Unsplash

The Pleasures of Disrupted Reading

Summer-wise, most of my reading is done in a hammock, slung under the grapevine, where the shade deepens from June to August.

This summer I set myself a few tasks: reread some favorites (the novels of Siri Hustvedt), find some shorter books (poetry, mixed genre, novellas) for an upcoming class to encourage students to be ambitious, and read interesting fiction to learn how to write interesting fiction. I wasn’t looking for “beach reads.” These were hammock reads.

Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way. I wanted books that demanded my attention, my re-reading, my deepening investment not in individual characters or poems, but in the entire enterprise of the book. Hammock reads require dissection, sifting, and leave me wanting to create my own map—like those books that include maps as their end papers, all unknown place names and craggy landmass, with accompanying genealogies. I wanted to chart the geographies and topographies of these books to diagram how their parts work together, speaking between and across the pages, verso and recto, text to text. Both The Sorrow Proper, by Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books) and Sarah Sadie’s We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. (Lit Fest Press) celebrate the pleasures of disrupture, delaying and toying with the reader’s desires.

Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way.

Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled. Through the twinned story of a library’s eventual closure and a romantic relationship between a photographer and a mathematician, the book meditates on whether endings (which are always present) are endings. The library dies—sort of. The thing called the library, and known as the library, dies. Someone, either the photographer or the mathematician, dies. (Don’t worry, reader—this isn’t a spoiler; it’s revealed on page 10.) A young girl has also died in front of the library, and her death haunts the librarians, while her parents continue to observe the library’s present.

Because the book reveals that one of the lovers will die, and so early, our basic understanding of how narrative functions is disrupted. There is no suspense, not really. We are told, “things either intersect, refract, or pass untouched.” What we do not know, or what quickly becomes confused, is who has died. The photographer is an amateur, who only exhibits in the free space of the library—he only photographs objects, insists that to photograph people would be unethical. At one point, he tells his lover that “a subject is ‘captured.’ Photography is violent and cruel.” The mathematician is deaf; she communicates through notes and signs, teaches the photographer about proofs, how her experience of the world differs from his. (At one point he asks her what silence sounds like, but she tells him she doesn’t know what that is . . .) They connect through various signs—most poignantly letters inscribed on her body, as he writes on her flesh. After she, or he, dies, the book alternates between their grieving. Fragmentary chapters describe the photographer unable to throw away the marker he used to write on her skin. Another describes her wrapping and re-wrapping the writing in bandages to preserve it from the elements, the ordinary friction of the everyday, hoping to save for a little longer this memory of him and their time together. They both continue to exist, alone, yet together.

Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled.

Alone, yet together, is the prevailing feeling of even the chapters where the mathematician and the photographer are both firmly alive and falling in love. Loss is present here too—traced throughout all their interactions. Both the structure and the prose (nearly prose poetry) insists it must be: early on, the mathematician writes to the photographer, “I will need you exactly always” and he thinks “in no world is always ever exact.” When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.” They write that the library has no floors, “MEANING NOT THAT IT LACKS A FOUNDATION, BUT RATHER, THAT IT IS A STRUCTURE THAT POSSESSES ONLY A SINGLE STORY.”

Perhaps the mathematician and the photographer are simply a possible story, a series of possible stories, in the library, as long as the library continues to exist. The reader reads the possible stories of them, as long as the book, the library, the culture of the book and the library continues to exist. Perhaps if and when the library and the book ceases to exist, so will the possible stories of the mathematician and the photographer, as well as any possible permutation of love stories, which are also every possible permutation of loss stories, and this is what concerns the librarians as they gather to bemoan the library’s fate, over beers and shots at the local dive bar. Perhaps what the book suggests through its exploration of the language of photography, mathematics, and the Many Worlds theory, is that we are all just “managing the dark.”

When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.”

The dark is what greets the reader first in the tangible form of Sarah Sadie’s poetry book We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. A slim volume, black front and back cover, simple white text, reversed on the back, as if one is looking through the book. One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried. There is a long poem that runs the length of the book at the bottom of all the pages that (not so) subtly tugs one’s attention downward. In the end, I had to read this long poem first, then go back to the individual poems, then read a third time, finding the connections, the hinges, between the self-contained poems on the pages and where they intersected with the long running text, like a news channel’s banner, constantly updating. Given the topics and recurring metaphors sprinkled throughout the book, I came to think of this running poem on the bottom of the pages as breadcrumbs (as the banner itself says on one of its numberless pages), like those in the story of Hansel and Gretel, those little morsels left as trail, as markers, for the reader to find her way back home.

One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried.

Throughout the poems, things are left for the reader to find. Most notably, the “princess water toys” the speaker leaves in the bathtub, in the “small, one-bedroom apartment” they rent in another town, “in another part of the state” where her husband works “half of each week.” The running text poems continues: “I leave them there anyway, emissaries. // Belle sighing, Girls grow up. / Cinderella nods, tired. Even a queen grows restless. // [. . .] And Ariel, facedown, repeats We were here. We were here.” Perhaps these quick mentions of everyday things would go unnoticed, if it were not for the book’s dedication: “For Reed, who knew to leave the princess water toys right where they were.” The poems are full of the everyday: laundry, strawberries, “bad cold wine,” acorns, and Great Horned Owls that nest in the backyard (more on that in a moment). But all of these everyday things, these quotidian moments, are complicated—fraught—with a simmering unease, a dissatisfaction that erupts from the running text poem and disrupts each page, challenging. The poem, “Riff on the Definition of a Poem” is interrupted by the voice that says, “I’m changing my name, she tells her husband. What’s changed? he asks.” Or the poem “The Girl the Gods Let Go” that speaks of not being chosen, of being left behind, so continuing on with “minivans / and pool parties [ . . .] Four kids and a successful spouse, a dog, / and all was well, more or less” is complicated by the running text that reads “Already she questions and crosses out her first sentences.” Here, the “she” seems to reference the earlier daughter, perhaps the Ariel princess left behind, but no longer face down, and no longer voiceless.

There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.”

There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.” The second and third owl poems are nearer the end of the book and in both, spouse and children are fully present, the furniture of human relationships, reflected in the watching of the birds. In one, the speaker proclaims, “Married // love is muscled and damn big, but hard / to spot, even with binoculars.” The final owl poem shows the family engaged in a project together, creating a garden, with a walkway and bench, for the neighbors who come to view the owls. The speaker refers to them all as “human constellations.” They “visit together, having been visited.” And near this poem, the interrupting text has become quieter, less voluble. Fist in its mouth.

Finally, this may be the project of the book. The bottom text, its breadcrumbs, a path for the reader to interrupt the closed forms of the poems, to meander in and out of the book, interrupting and challenging what seems quotidian, a depiction of the trials and difficulties of marriage and children, the navigating of relationships that are somehow—strangely—unlike where you thought you’d end up. But they are, also strangely, where you’re glad to have ended up. Because the poems must address both these states, the poet writes them both, and allows them to comingle on the page.

Read The Sorrow Proper
Read The Sorrow Proper
Read We are traveling through the dark at tremendous speeds
Read We are traveling through the dark at tremendous speeds

top photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

The Slims River Is Gone

This is true.

Last spring, the Slims River in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park abruptly disappeared over the course of four days. A team of geologists and geoscientists that had been monitoring the retreat of the Kaskawulsh Glacier, the source of the Slims River, arrived to find dust where the mighty glacial river (one-third of a mile across at its widest places) had tumbled boulders and tree trunks just days before. Because the Alsek River, the glacier’s other outlet, had swelled to sixty times its usual flow, the field team concluded that the glacier’s intense, rapid melt had forced all of the water into the Alsek and away from the Slims.

This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.

This is the first time this kind of “river piracy” has been observed in recorded history, though the geological record indicates that it probably happened millions of years ago during other periods of extreme warming.

What matters: the Slims River is gone. What once roared toward the Kluane River and into the Yukon to the Bering Sea now spills south into the Alsek toward the Gulf of Alaska. Instead of river in that once green valley, the wind whips up dust storms; the air is oddly silent.

I walked along the Slims River twice. Once, in June of 2005, my friend Lia and I backpacked up the trail that followed its west side. We intended to hike all the way to the toe of the great Kaskawulsh, but the first day — a grueling fourteen miles that included an intense crossing of the swollen Bullion Creek, a grizzly bear encounter on the edge of some willows, a trudge through sticky glacial silt, and a scramble up and down a trail the park ranger at the Sheep Mountain information center had described as “more or less flat” — had nearly defeated us. We set up camp at Canada Creek, in full view of the massive river of ice, and poured vodka into orange Tang for supper. In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River? It roared, gray-blue milk, just yards to the east of our tent all night, as impassable as the steep walls of rock on either side of the valley. It roared, and there was never darkness; the sun set close to midnight; we could still see to trace each other’s faces in the early hours of the morning.

Painting by MK MacNaughton, used with permission.
Painting by MK MacNaughton, used with permission.

In the rose-red light, we grinned at each other, giddy with weariness and whatever was blossoming between us, which was not mere friendship anymore, and which seemed as raw and gorgeous as that landscape. Did we notice the Slims River?

Eight years later, in June of 2013, I backpacked alone along the same trail on the west side of the Slims River, climbing up Sheep Mountain to a place where I could trace the braided curve of the Slims in the vast valley up toward the place where we had camped in view of the Kaskawulsh. In my two hands, I clutched a plastic Ziplock bag that contained some of Lia’s ashes. Not just ashes. Bits of bone. A piece of metal. When I sank my fingers into the bag, the white dust clung to my skin. I concentrated on the flowers that bobbed their heads in the wind on that rocky edge: the purple Ogilvie Spring Beauty, the yellow Maclean’s Goldenweed. Beyond, the Kaskawulsh curved in its frozen S. I knew the glacier moved, that it retreated daily, melting fast into the Slims and the Alsek, but I could not observe that action. I could barely breathe. When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils. Later, I crouched on the shore of the Slims, sinking my hands into the gray-blue milk. Ash swirled with silt, turning my hands to clay.

When I filled my hands with Lia’s ashes, my fingertips remembered how soft her skin had been in the alpenglow at Canada Creek; when I opened my fingers, the wind swirled bone fragment and dust and threw it, laughing, into my eyes, my ears, my nostrils.

Sometime after Lia died, I wrote: The Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park moves forward in the summer at an average velocity of 16,380 meters per day. The current glacier reached to its furthest extent in the early 1700s, when Bach wrote cantatas, Louis XIV of Spain ceded world domination to Great Britain, the slave trade between Africa and the American colonies increased, hostilities between Native American tribes and the colonists increased, and the Persian army sacked Delhi. Scientists know the age of the Kaskawulsh because they have conducted dendroglaciological studies. “Dendr-” = “related to trees.” Ring series from white spruce trees divulge the advances and retreats because the Kaskawulsh sheared, tilted, killed. Velocity, simultaneous events, exact day and time. Shatter the ice, break the rock. I want to know what is inside.

The violence of the glacier fascinated me with its unpredictable advances and retreats, its ancient insistence on destruction. On the alpine ridge of Sheep Mountain that day in 2013, I stood feeling insignificant, aware of the mountains that rose ancient on all sides of me, of the glacier that told me time does not move as human beings believe it does. What is eight years, after all? I wondered, briefly, if the mud flats and the meadows purple and white with Alaska cotton remembered our footsteps, but I barely considered the braided river.

But now, when I visit that place again, I’ll find a valley of dust, sculpted by wind into phantom shapes, as if the Slims River never was.

This is what a death is like for those who continue living. Once, a person stood there, infuriating or enamoring us with a face alight with anger or sadness or frustration or joy. Once, a person reached out arms to embrace us or threw up hands to ward us off. Once, there was skin to caress, a mouth to kiss, a mind to question. And then, very suddenly, no matter if the person dies at forty-two, as Lia did, or at ninety-eight, as my grandmother did, there is an eerie, silent absence. As if the person had never been there at all.

This is what a death is like for those who continue living.

The body is cremated or buried or donated to science. We stand in an empty room and try to remember how a voice sounded, exactly what a face looked like. Photographs are flawed historians; our memories tilt, filtered. If only we could ask her one more question, touch her cheek one more time, look upon her face just for one more moment. Only absence answers.

The Slims River in the Yukon is gone. I could walk across the entire broad valley from west to east, now. Lia is gone. Her raucous voice, her wild hair, her sacrilegious sense of humor, her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.

The Slims River in the Yukon is gone… Lia is gone… her paradoxical softness and edginess will never ripple in the world again. And others that I have loved are gone: Fern, John, Ida Ruth, Bill. I stand on a shore and close my eyes, straining to remember.

Years ago, when I wrote the first drafts of Grief Map, which releases from Brain Mill Press today, I was still desperate to recreate what was gone. I wanted my words to do what reality refused to do: bring back flesh, restore breath. Fiercely, I imagined myself walking that trail west of the Slims again: When I study the mud, I know I might find the overlapping footprints she and I left here in 2005 . . . Here in this air our laughter and our words exist, still. Here are the descendants of the same plants – lupine, penstemon, fireweed — that we flattened with our steps, touched with our fingertips, picked for each other’s hair. Here is the same grove of aspens, grown a little taller, and the same spruce forest . . .

What I did not yet understand was that I am still alive. It is not time for me to sink into the glacial silt and disappear from this world. I have more walking to do. I have other river trails to explore; I have others to love well.

In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver writes that we can each make a choice about how to live until that inevitable moment when we must “step through the door” of death. She says:

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this

world.

In my dreams, I do sometimes walk through a meadow of Alaska cotton on the west shore of the Slims. I do sometimes taste orange Tang and vodka. I do sometimes hear Lia’s infectious laugh. But when I wake, I snuggle close to my wife, Meredith, delight in her soft warm skin, treasure the crazy energy of our ten-year-old daughter and the dog leaping onto our bed. I am here, though the Slims River is gone. I am here, and I do not plan to merely visit this world.

***

Sarah Hahn Campbell’s book of linked essays, Grief Map, published by Brain Mill Press, releases today in print and ebook, available from sellers and distributors everywhere, and in fine first edition print and ebook directly from Brain Mill Press.

top photo by Iler Stoe on Unsplash

Returning to the Work

I haven’t exactly had writer’s block for the past month, but I haven’t been writing. This is a red flag.

Until a month ago, I maintained a strict writing discipline: I’d wake at 4:30, eat my breakfast and read for an hour, and then sit down at my computer to begin. My goal: write for an hour, at least, before I had to drive to school to teach. For two years, I followed that discipline. Before that, for many years, I wrote every night after I put Mitike to bed; I refused to let myself go to sleep until I had reached at least 1,700 words.

But lately, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a place I know all writers visit at some point, or at many points (because I have read so many memoirs by writers, like Stephen King’s On Writing, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). It’s a place that looks like despair, except it also looks like regular life without the requirement to get up at 4:30 a.m. or drink strong coffee at 10 p.m. to reach those 1,700 words. In fact, it’s a more relaxing place. The in-progress novel about the girl whose brother is shot by the police? I no longer have to figure out how to make her reaction both powerful and believable. The other in-progress novel about the high school classroom on lockdown? I don’t have to solve the mystery of why, exactly, they’ve been put on lockdown. The historical fiction about Anna Dickinson? I don’t have to research anymore. The nonfiction work on coffee? I don’t have to walk through my life connecting everything to coffee any longer.

Lately, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a place I know all writers visit at some point, or at many points… It’s a place that looks like despair, except it also looks like regular life without the requirement to get up at 4:30 a.m. or drink strong coffee at 10 p.m. to reach those 1,700 words.

It’s easier to not write. Regular, non-writer people have calmer, far less obsessive lives. I never knew.

I’ve fallen into this place because I’ve been rejected on almost every possible front lately: a PhD program put me coldly on their waiting list; five colleges failed to call me for an interview for their posted composition or creative writing positions; four magazines informed me I have “high-quality work,” but they do not plan to publish the essays I submitted to them; and three writing residencies thanked me for my applications for their summer programs but informed me I am not quite for them. And the two books in the world with my name on them as author make only a few dollars (literally) each month. Only one book waits in the wings: the book of essays on grief, which wonderful Brain Mill Press plans to publish soon.

So, pitying myself, I decided to stop waking up at 4:30. Or, rather, I still get up at 4:30, and then I lie down on the couch and sleep for an additional hour. On the weekends, I choose to read instead of carve out my writing time, as I used to insist to my family I required. I spend my hours outside in our backyard, building a square-foot garden. The kale plants appreciate the water; the cabbage never asks me to turn a beautiful sentence; the eager broccoli never tells me my work is “not for them.”

It’s easier to not write. Regular, non-writer people have calmer, far less obsessive lives. I never knew.

Then, this week, in one of those moments that make my entire teaching career matter, a student came to my classroom to ask for help on a scholarship essay. The student’s name is Nasra Yusuf, or at least that is what I’ll call her here, to protect her identity. Nasra Yusuf has faced nearly every imaginable challenge this year: a Somalian immigrant from a traditional Muslim family, she chose to come out to her family as lesbian this fall and was promptly disowned. Technically homeless now, she lives with a friend’s family and is scrambling to apply for as many scholarships as possible, as her parents refuse to assist her with college unless she renounces her identity as a lesbian. She has endured depression and anxiety, crippling self-doubt, and the grief of standing separated from literally everything and everyone she has known. Secretly, she still prays to Allah for comfort, though she has chosen to take off the hijab, to wear 1980s T-shirts and jeans, to unbraid her long hair and wear it free.

In her scholarship essay, which only needed some editing, Nasra Yusuf describes the way her father called in the Muslim sheikhs to surround her in a prayer intervention when she first came out to her parents, the way she kept herself separate and distant inside even as they chanted, certain in her new awareness of who she is. It is a beautiful and powerful essay—the kind of writing we read because it matters and it’s honest and it reminds us to be honest in our own lives, too.

Technically homeless now, she lives with a friend’s family and is scrambling to apply for as many scholarships as possible, as her parents refuse to assist her with college unless she renounces her identity as a lesbian.

“You’re brave,” I told her, as I often do.

She grinned at me, pushing up her glasses. “Writing about it helps. It really does.” Then she thanked me, gathered her laptop and books, and rushed out to a meeting with another scholarship organization. I sat alone in the sunshine that streamed through the tall classroom windows. Writing about it helps. It does. Of course, I am the one who has taught Nasra Yusuf that this year. Again and again, I have encouraged her to write about her experiences, to discover how she feels by writing herself onto the page. Again and again, I have told her that I have survived the most difficult parts of my life because I have refused to stop writing.

In those times, I didn’t care whether anyone wanted to publish or pay me for my writing. I wrote because I had to. I wrote because I knew that was how I would survive.

And now I’m going to quit because of a handful of rejections?

“You’re brave,” I told her, as I often do. She grinned at me, pushing up her glasses. “Writing about it helps. It really does.”

Last week, I heard the writer Anne Lamott speak about and read from her new book, Hallelujah Anyway. Lamott, who wrote the sage advice in Bird by Bird that a writer should and must create “shitty first drafts” and keep plodding forward, though writing is often tedious and unrewarding misery, reminded us that it’s about the work. She said she remembers that her own father, also a writer, required himself to sit down at his desk every morning by 5:30, no matter what. So you don’t feel successful. So you despair. So you feel like you have nothing left to say. So what? It is the work that matters. In Bird by Bird, Lamott explains, “…this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?”

I never used to write because I wanted recognition or fame or money. From age nine, I have written because I felt compelledto write. I wanted to feel more alive. And Nasra Yusuf is right: it helps. It does.

So you don’t feel successful. So you despair. So you feel like you have nothing left to say. So what? It is the work that matters.

Starting right now, I am returning to my green chair in my orange writing room in our house. I am returning to my 5:30 a.m. writing routine. I have reopened the in-progress novels, the half-written essays. I have returned to my old requirement for myself: write, every day, no matter what.

Writing, of course, is not much different from the spinach and onion and collard green seeds I’ve planted in my square-foot garden. The work is what matters. Something might grow, and it might even be good — but for now, I’ll keep watering, I’ll keep scaring away the rabbits, and I’ll wait.

top photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash