Writing and Waiting: Essays that I love

This week and last, I’ve been caught up in writing. Deadlines come and go. I started articles, essays, and posts, and I diligently send them off. What generally happens when I zero in on writing assignments is that I write and write and write and revise and revise and rewrite. I focus only on what must get done to finish whatever piece I’m writing. I stop reading. I tell myself that I’m too busy to linger on the essays that I want to read and then I feel guilty when I do take the time to read the current issue of Creative Nonfiction or pick up one of the many essay collections stacked in my office within easy reach.

Yet, I must read to become a better writer, so I’ve tried to give myself a little time each day to read, usually before I rush to pick up children from preschool and afterschool.

Here are the essays that have stuck with me in these last two weeks:

  1. Shirley Jackson, “Memory and Delusion,” The New Yorker

This essay is from the new collection of Jackson’s short stories and essays, Let Me Tell You, which I purchased as soon as I read this essay. My familiarity with Jackson’s writing was limited to a memory of how terrifying it was to read “The Lottery” in high school. Yet, her story has stuck with me for years and years since I first read it. In “Memory and Delusion,” Jackson wrote about being a writer who is also a mother. She carved out time at the typewriter after household chores were done and her family was fed. Like her, I’m a writer who writes from home. Her essay depicted the struggle to find time and space to write, the way in which home presses upon us with all that must be done.

Writers, she explained to us, are always writing. We don’t just write when we put pen to page (or now type away on keyboards). Writing is something we do all day long, especially when we fold laundry, wash dishes or prepare meals. She provided encouragement too, but here are the lines that I keep scribbling on post-it notes and placing around my office: “All you have to do—and watch this carefully, please—is keep writing. As long as you write it away regularly, nothing can really hurt you.”

2. Judith Kitchen, “Any Given Day,” Creative Nonfiction (in the magazine, not online)

Kitchen’s essay, published posthumously, is about waiting, memory, and the days that pass by. It is a meditation on the meaning of a life when you know your days are limited, the desire to desire, and an accounting of all those ordinary days that make up our lives. Days go by. Time flies. We rely on cliches to describe the passage of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. I often wonder about how my time passes. Where did it go? What did I do? What have I accomplished? What am I waiting for? But, I find my most precious moments, those that I want to sear into my brain, in the regular humdrum. The toddler tests out a knock knock joke that his older sister finds funny enough to repeat over and over in a car ride home. The love that grows and builds between my kids day in and out. The conversations I have with Chris. The unexpected kindness and joy.

That finite amount of time each of us has before we come to our ends is filled with waiting and action, and most days appear unremarkable as we search them for meaning. She wrote:

Where is time taking us, we whose time means everything and nothing? How does the month slink off without warning? 


I Look Like A Professor

I don’t look like a professor, or so I’ve been told in my almost 13 years in, or adjacent to, academia. Usually, that message is sent indirectly: a casual comment in the hall, a smirk, or a nicer-than-nice question regarding my hair, clothes, or tattoos. Other times, the message is direct and clear.

At conferences, for example, faculty members and graduate students express equal amounts of disbelief and surprise that someone who looks like me managed to write the book they just read. Senior scholars, and on occasion deans, ask me what I’m studying — even though I finished my Ph.D. in 2008. With confused looks on their faces, my students double-check to make sure that I am the professor, not the teaching assistant. More disturbingly, I’ve seen members of search committees look openly puzzled that I — the body seated in front of them — could possibly be the qualified applicant that they selected for an interview.

In my previous department, when I arrived to interview for a lecturer gig, the secretary assumed I was a student and told me pointedly that the chair was too busy to see me without an appointment. I smiled and tried to explain that I was there for an interview. It took a few minutes to convince her that I was actually a job candidate. As I left the interview, I overheard her telling a faculty member that I didn’t look old enough to have a Ph.D.

Read more.

Essays I Love #1

When I have to describe the kind of writer that I am, I most often say I’m an essayist. Before I claimed the mantle of essayist, I read other writer’s bios and lingered over those who proclaimed to be essayists. What a bold claim. What a sense of knowing what you do and who you are. I envied that bold certainty. It took me quite awhile to admit that I was a writer, but less time to realize that essays were what I wanted to write. In Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio notes that “engine of the essay” is “doubt and the unknown.” He curates a vision of the essay as an attempt to capture ordinary life in motion with all its entanglements and contradictions.

As soon as I read D’Ambrosio’s discussion of the essay, I knew I was hooked. Certainty makes me a bit queasy, but doubt is my constant companion. It never leaves me. It makes me ask hard (and harder) questions. Doubt fuels my curiosity (and wonder) of the world. It motivates me.

The essay is my jam.

Unsurprisingly, I have a deep and abiding love of essays. I work my way through collection after collection. I read them online. I print them and mark them up. I consume them: personal, critical, and the lovely hybrids of the two. I’ve meant to start a weekly feature featuring essays that I love. These could be essays that I’ve read months, or even years, ago, essays I’ve read during the week, or the essays that I return to because they made me into the writer that I am now.

This is the inaugural post of an ongoing series, and I’m starting with two essays I read this week that I can’t quit thinking about.

1. At Guernica, Lidia Yuknavitch’s Woven is meditation on the intimacy of violence and its particular consequences in the lives of women. She tells stories that showcase the effects of violence on her life. They start and stop and continue. I have a hard time describing what she does, except that I am in awe. The essay is beautifully crafted, but the subject is so harrowing. I read and reread. Here’s a small glimpse of her essay:

When my infant daughter died, spilling out with our shared waters, the story breached. Every story I have ever told has a kind of breach to it, I think. You could say that my writing isn’t quite right. That all the beginnings have endings in them.

I picked up her memoir, The Chronology of Water. The first line of her acknowledgments makes me want to put away everything and start reading now.

2. I found Alice Driver’s essays at Vela, a magazine that publishes non-fiction from women writers. This week I read her “I Use My Body Like Money,” though I highly recommend her other essays on the site too. She writes of money, art, and family and of the particular pressures that money and “success” place on us in the creative fields. Here’s a sample of her reflections:

Whenever I think about the ephemerality of life, the only thing I worry about is whether I will have enough time to write and birth meaningful work into the world. When I think of death, I am not afraid of being penniless or alone—I am afraid of not having had the freedom to create.


Carry On

I started writing my Grace Period series over two years. The first essay in the series was an accident really. I just wanted to let people (friends, family, colleagues, and the random readers of my blog) that I was taking a year off to figure out what to do with my life after quitting my job as a lecturer and moving to Florida. Someone kindly pointed out that post to the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s new Vitae Project.

I received an email from one of their editors offering me a gig to write about my transition out of academia while in the hospital after the birth of my son. So, I started writing about my year off and my transition out of academia. My year turned into two. I cataloged how I felt about what I left behind and what was hopefully in front of me.

Last week, Vitae published my last essay in the series, Goodbye to All That. I expected to be sad, but I’m not. Sometimes, an ending is just an ending, a place where we stop to rest before moving on. I’m happy to have had the chance to write all of these essays and to rediscover the joy (and heartache) of writing.

So, here are the links to all my Grace Period essays in order. I hope you enjoy them.

1. My Post-Academic Grace Period

2. How to (Not) Avoid the Job Market

3. The Hard Business of Letting Go (followed by (Non)Toxic Dreams on my blog)

4. The Impermanent Adjunct

5. I’m Over My Discipline

6. The Manuscript Blues

7. Things I Miss

8. To Write or Not To Write

9. My First Postacademic Lecture

10. How You End Up Leading a Task Force on Contingency

11. Clean Slate

12. Maybe I Should Have Stayed in Retail

13. Goodbye to All That

Goodbye to All That

I slipped into a funk about my writing, especially about writing a book that no longer had a home, and about my life more generally. I decided that I hated writing, even as I continued to write columns, personal essays, pitches, and blog posts. I wrote and wrote and wrote. So maybe I didn’t hate writing; I just hated this manuscript and way it made me feel like an academic failure. I couldn’t get a tenure-track job, and I couldn’t finish a project I had started almost three years ago. What was wrong with me? I kept the cancelled contract in my desk as a reminder of this particular failure, but the mere thought of it left me teary-eyed. I decided to ignore both the manuscript and the returned advance.

I thought I was over beating myself up about my exit from academia. Apparently I wasn’t.

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