Mile markers

Well, hey there 2011. Look at you, 2000s — you’re a tween now! Let’s keep the raging hormones down to a dull roar, shall we? No Bieber Fever. Seriously.

It’s my first post of 2011, all the way here mid-February. I’m feeling rather grand in my slow-pokedness, thank you very much. Every day I come to understand a little more how my path is so, so different. I somehow missed the brightly colored trail blaze a long way back and took some kind of turn. This path of mine has no markers, no end or solutions or rewards in sight. Some days it’s dark and terrifying — I hear malicious rustles in the shadows. Others, it’s bright with sun and wind, rich with the smell of hot pine needles and nearby creeks. Here’s something lovely and unexpected: I’m not alone on it. First and foremost, the person I adore most in the world, an artist, is with me. We hold on to each other’s elbows, keep each other steady, take each other’s packs when they get too heavy, remind ourselves to look outward. And there’s my family and friends. I turn a corner, stumble, and what do you know? They catch me. Every damn time. Some days, I can’t bear my own luck.

Can you tell I’m turning 40 in a two and a half months?

I confess, I’ve been freaking out a bit. It hasn’t been about looks or body (thank heavens); I’ve mostly put that insidious little demon to rest. Nor am I behaving badly. No one’s drinking heavily or taking up smoking again (alas) over here. Instead, I’ve found myself retreating inward, becoming too solemn, too obsessive and brooding. One such obsession, aside from more generalized existential pondering, is about — ta-da!– writing. I made the decision somewhere around age 29 or so to take myself and my work seriously, which means I’ve been at this writing game — in earnest — for a decade. When I type that, I hear a reassuring voice in my head (I think it may be Molly Ivins, or Grace Paley, or maybe Linda Hunt): Well, hell, darlin’. A decade? That’s a drop in the bucket. Writing’s for distance runners, not sprinters. You won’t hit your stride for years, if you should be so lucky.

Would it be that I would listen to those wise voices, mixed metaphors and all, but I’m not always so clear-eyed or well-adjusted, even as I purport (pretend?) to be an upstanding professorial type. I watch those people I went to conferences with back in the early 2000s publish their first, and second, and third books. And I cheer for them — sincerely, I do — because their success is good, good, good news for all of us. The problem is, I have a tendency to start wild, unfounded deductions. Publishing a book equals success; I have not published a book; therefore, I am a wholesale failure. (I’ve always had trouble with syllogisms.) Of course it’s not true. But it feels true, as Stephen Colbert might say, there in my gut, on some days, with a “big” birthday looming. (And oh my gosh, thanks, New Yorker, for your 20 under 40 series!) On these days, I wonder if I can finish what I’ve started, if these stories in me matter, if any of this is at all worth it. Why is it worth it? What if I didn’t write? What could my life be then? What if this really, really is me — the A student, the successful worker, the caring teacher, the good daughter — finally failing, and at the thing I wanted most?

(None of this is particularly profound, I know, and I hope that if any folks read this, they’re kind-hearted enough to forgive my self-indulgence. I know there are bigger things out there. I do.)

So what does a writer do in the face of this? In the past, I might have turned to my mentors, to the bountiful, wondrous advice that I’ve been fortunate enough to hear over the years. That advice has sustained me and will continue to do so, as will books and reading. However, now, here, staring into this new uncharted wild, I find I’m forced to turn to myself: what would *I* do in the face of this?  I have to figure out this process on my own terms, to discover what writing fiction means — really means– to me. If I’ve learned anything in these last few months of reflection, it’s that I finally might be old enough to start.

I’ll end this long-windedness with a story. I was out walking in my neighborhood. A wooded path and bridge give sly back-door access to the town, and I often take this route to the library, coffee shop, or park. The path comes out at the elementary school, and for a stretch, it runs parallel to the school’s fenced-in walking track and field. On this day, when I emerged from the woods, the elementary-school kids were out for recess, shuffling and running in half-hearted spurts around the track. They took great delight in spotting me. One of the little girls pointed at me and shouted, “Woman!” in a voice one might use for “Bigfoot!” or “Cake!” They waved and giggled and tittered, called out, “Hi, Ma’am.” That childish glee about such a small moment caught me off guard, and I cracked up laughing. There I was — Woman! — startled right out of her routine and brooding old self, at once the cause and receiver of unexpected wonderment. Aren’t these the moments we’re after, here in this writing life? I think so. At the very least, I waved back.

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