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? 

 

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.

 

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.

Read more.

TinyLetter

I started a TinyLetter in June. I’ve written two letters so far. I imagined that I might write a letter weekly, but my imaginings don’t often sit well with the reality of day-to-day life. Part of my slowness to write these letters is to figure out how they are different or similar from my other writing. I’m not sure I have a good sense of whether TinyLetters are a particular genre or not, so I’m treating them as tiny personal essays about two topics that dominate my thinking (and writing), bodies and books.

I’m writing to you, dear readers, because I want to write more and think more about bodies and books. Also, I would love for you to write back. Let’s have a conversation. Some of you have already written to me. Thank you.

For those of who haven’t subscribed, here are excerpts from my first two letters. I hope you’ll let me write to you too.

My first letter is on writing, motherhood, and Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway and Nearby:

When I first started reading The Faraway Nearby, I adored it. I read the book while I was still rocking my youngest to sleep for two naps a day. While he snuggled close, I followed along as Solnit pondered apricots, fairy tales, leprosy, Che, Frankenstein, ice, memories, empathy, and family. My eyes strained in dimly lit nursery. My Kindle glowed illuminating his chubby face and balled fists. I was drawn to Solnit because of her essay that spurred discussions of mansplaining. I hoped to mimic the lovely intermingling of personal essay and researched explanations. The baby nursed; I read. The close proximity of motherhood and writer’s aspirations felt meaningful. I could only read about writing while he slept. I could only write while my oldest was at preschool. I was pulled into two different directions, motherhood and writing. The tension felt distinct and inescapable. 

My second letter is about my anxiety about parenting and my attempts to let my children become who they want to be:

On the drive home, fear punched me in the gut. I just agreed to let my six-year-old go to the beach without me. I imagined everything that could go wrong in intimate detail. Sunburn. Drowning. Car accident. Drowning. Jellyfish stings. Drowning. My breathing became shallow, my stomach bottomed out, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Chris could tell something was wrong,  but, I couldn’t speak without making my sobbing obvious to our kids in the backseat. I took a deep breath and tried to reign in my panic.

What if something bad happened to her?

Here’s the link to subscribe. A new letter is coming soon.

 

To muse

To muse is to consider something thoughtfully.

A muse is a person, usually a woman, who is the source of inspiration.

In May of 2013, I hastily decided that I need a new name for my blog, something that would signal the break I was taking from academia. I wanted a name that evoked transition and open endings. I settled on “In Progress” because it suggested that I was a “work in a progress” without a clear end. It also reminded me of blaring television announcements that we would be joining the program in progress. I hated these as a kid because I would miss the beloved beginnings of favorite television shows for some urgent announcement. The action started in the middle. In progress adeptly summed up how I felt. Transition whether I wanted it or not. A brief hiatus that dumped me in the middle of my life ill-equipped to handle what was next.

My blog was a lifeline in those early days of transitioning out of academia into anything else. My anguish in the posts about my grace period still feels raw and real, though I’ve long recovered from much of the hurt and confusion. I’m in progress, I would say aloud, to calm my anxiety about what would happen next. I didn’t know what kind of work I wanted to become. I just knew that I was transforming from one vision of self to another.

In those early moments, the focus on transition was a balm. I tried (and failed) to embrace uncertainty. As the last two years have gone by, transition as a theme chafed rather than healed. I found myself blogging less and less while wondering about the utility of this space for my writing and my life. I picked up more and more paid writing, so blogging felt like a distraction with no real goal. What did I have to say about my progress? What was I working toward? Who the hell was I going to be?

These are questions that I still don’t have good answers for, but I thought more and more about my blog’s place in my life and work. I’ve been blogging since 2007. I started out writing posts for Religion in American History with the hope for conversations about how and why we did our scholarship. I started my blog here in 2010 as a way to cultivate my own blogging voice separate from the group blog that I helped found. Blogging has always been my way to work things out. Short posts that explain what I’m thinking, but also longer almost-essays that work out particular problems in my research. Blogging gave me a casual way to voice concerns and create my opinions. It was my method to work through my scholarship in a public way.

Maybe, I needed to give blogging up. Maybe, it wasn’t working for me anymore. The thought of no longer blogging, however, bothered me. So, what was my problem? Why wasn’t I writing at In Progress with any frequency?

The title and format of the website no longer worked for me. They shut me down rather than inspired me to write. I was unsure of what the goal of my blog should be, but really, I was unsure what the blog did for me.

Then, I realized (with some serious help from Chris) that my blog should be whatever I wanted. This blog is my place marker in the wild world of the Internet, so it should free my creativity rather than stall it.

First, I changed the look of the blog. I chose a minimal design that forefronts writing. My blog should have never really looked like a magazine because that’s not really what I do.

Second, I changed the title to Musings, which has long been my favorite tag for my posts here. As a verb, to muse means to think thoughtfully about a topic. As a noun, it means either a dream-like state or a person that inspires you. After suggesting a particular idea for an essay, Chris likes to say, “you’ve been mused!”

Thinking, inspiring, and dreaming are excellent goals, and musing covers all three. Musings evoke dwelling with ideas, topics, and events, which is the best part of my job as a writer and essayist. Why not make my blog a place where musings are standard fare?

I hope y’all enjoy the redesign and follow along as I muse about whatever speaks to me. Hopefully, my musings will speak to you too.