Living in a house without books is like walking around with one hollow leg. I am off balance, incomplete. After a move, I’m always eager to jump into unpacking my books as soon as possible because of that sense of comfort, that sense of safety the books bring to me, but in my last few moves I noticed a new feeling creeping in – disappointment. A certain nostalgia for the hopes I once had and disappointment in what my life has become. As a result, this time around I had been putting it off, both delaying the gratification of feeling once again whole and staving off the introspection this process brings about, but after weeks of letting them stew in their big stacks of messy reused boxes, I just couldn’t put it off any longer.
Unpacking my books is like walking through a retrospective of my life’s dreams, all of which have involved writing. From the stack of Hemingway that blew the doors off of my adolescent world to the Beats that legitimized my years of drug-hazed rebellion to Lydia Davis and Mary Robison and all those genius contemporary women that made me believe there might be room after all for a voice like mine squeezed into that cannon of great literature.
I don’t know if the relationship to books is the same for all writers, nor do I know if non-writers experience a similar attachment. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, my books have been my refuge and my identity, my peace and my joy. In many ways, they have shaped me more than any friend, teacher, or parent. But this is ground that’s been covered by a million other writers more skilled than me.
This is not a post about how my books are my best friends. This is a post about how my best friends have let me down.
From the first novel I wrote when I was seven years old all the way through the inception of this blog, I have always known that I was meant to be a writer. Writing is, as I so often tell my staff, the only thing I am an expert in. But none of the staff I like to share this expertise with are writers, and my job has nothing to do with writing.
Like so many writers before me, I found a place for myself in higher education, but unlike most of my heroes and my more successful contemporaries, I didn’t find a place in the classroom, but in the administration building. Yes, I teach a class every semester or two, but aside from those intermittent schedule assignments I’m only nominally involved in the writing program and in no way connected to the literary magazine that they produce. And what’s worse, I have no desire for any involvement beyond this.
I like teaching freshman composition because I’m able to help build the skills that my students will need no matter where they go in life, but at the risk of branding myself a heretic I must question the value of teaching them writing skills beyond this. What good will it do them to learn how to write short stories or free verse poetry? What’s the point of an undergraduate writing degree anyway? Isn’t it just setting up these young people for the disappointment of day jobs and rejection letters?
When I consider my own academic path and the value that my MFA has brought to my life, it seems unfair to deem writing programs unworthy or a waste of time. But for all the good my degree has done for my me, I can’t help but wonder if maybe my life would be happier without it, and without a writing practice at all. Couldn’t I then just be satisfied with my life without always asking those same questions – What if I had only tried a little harder? What if I committed myself a little more? What if that last unfinished story was the one that would have been my big break?
All my life I travelled with the dream of something bigger. I thought my life would be something worthy of literature, and that my attempts at literature would be worthy of someone taking note. And for a while my life was noteworthy. I did exciting things all the time. I was impulsive and passionate. I fluttered around from country to country, driven by dreams and by true love – what could be more bookworthy than that? But when it came to writing it all down, that charisma didn’t quite translate. I managed to fulfill my dream of living a modern day equivalent of The Sun Also Rises, but Hemingway I was not.
While I was unpacking this weekend, I found a stack of stories and chapters in progress that I had printed out months ago during one of my increasingly infrequent bouts of ambition in which I believe I will find the time (and the cojones) to finally start sending out work for publication. I looked at the stories I was writing, the worlds I was creating, and all I wanted was to lock the door to my den and not come out until that next book was done and ready to go. But then I looked at the clock and counted backwards from an optimistic estimation of the baby’s wakeup time and came up with a number that was already too small to constitute a full night’s sleep. I thought through my calendar for the week, thought about ways that maybe I could sneak in time at work or get myself functional at 4am to have an hour of writing time before the baby starts calling for me. For a few minutes I dreamed that with just a little more time management ingenuity I could come up with something solid and complete for the first time in too, too long.
And then I snapped out of it.
So now what? At thirty-four, I feel a number of decisions weighing on me – Do I have another child? Do I embark on a PhD? If I pursue a PhD, do I follow the course of my heart or the course of my career? And where would my writing fit into these hypothetical scenarios, if at all? I think so often about leaving it behind, but it seems no matter what I do, this is a bug I just can’t shake.
Lately I’ve been feeling that I finally may have hit on something. With this blog I feel I have freed up my voice, I’ve finally figured out how to write freely without the pressure of all those literary giants looming down on me. I feel like only after giving up on those big ideas of being a writer did I finally really start to write. And right now, for one more week at least, that feels like enough.