Friday, January 29, 2010


Last year, for the first time ever, I dated a writer. We met through a mutual friend, both commenting on her Facebook status. The witty banter turned to email which graduated to echat and eventually to the phone. We ignored the obvious hurdle of living on opposite coasts and started dating.

“Hey,” I began as I got situated in front of the computer. “Southern Women’s Review accepted one of my stories!”

“Uh huh.” He swirled the ice in his glass, took a sip, returned the etched lowball to the kitchen table where he was seated.

“Wow, that’s all I get?”

“Paige, I mean, you’re a ‘writer’,” he said.

“Please tell me those weren’t air quotes but a nervous tic?”

He shrugged, smiled. “Look, you don’t make a living at it like I do.”

“I need to go,” I said, before slamming the lid closed on my laptop. Then I spent the next twenty-four hours coming up with a collection of wittier retorts.

For the longest time, I didn’t consider myself a writer, not even a ‘writer’. I was funny, smart and sassy. I managed well under pressure and creatively problem solved. But for everything I was, I was not a writer. The closest I came to being a writer was being a blogger. Except people respect bloggers as much as they respect car salesmen, thereby circling me back to square one.

But when I started graduate school, set out for an MFA in Creative Writing, I finally felt empowered to identify myself as a writer. “I sell insurance, and I’m a writer,” I answer when asked what I do. The writing part? That always interests people. They want to know what I write, how I approach the process, what books I turn to for inspiration. Then they often pull me aside and, like sharing a deep dark secret, whisper the project they one day hope to write. Every time this happens, no matter how inane the proposed plot, I smile and excitedly urge him or her to write. “Sit down, do it!” I always say.

A few weeks after referring to me as a hobby writer, I ended the relationship. There were a lot of things wrong with that pairing, too many to list. But at the core, the biggest issue was I could never be with a man who believed in me less than I did. It isn’t that I want someone to blindly cheer me on. You don’t have to love what I write to love me. But belittling my efforts is, well, mean. And that’s how I came to understand that his opinion isn’t a reflection of my ability to write but his ability to be a ‘man’.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mirror, Mirror

My hairdresser was excited about my wedding before I even knew there was going to be one. She had faith in our possibilities even before Z knew he was my destiny. When I went to tell her I was engaged last year, she cried a little, and then immediately started making plans for a bridal coif. “I’m thinking loose curls. Something romantic. Nothing too bride-y.” I liked her vision of me as a Pre-Raphaelite heroine who, for once, does not have to drown herself in the name of love.

The only problem was that when we did a trial run, instead of a happier Ophelia, I looked like a bulldog in a wig. Suddenly, I had jowls.

We revised.

She pulled some hair up on the sides and curled it in a new way, and then I looked like myself. Only fancier. The day of my wedding, she worked her magic with both make-up tools and a hair brush. In the salon, my hair was perfect. She showed my cousin how to attach the veil and sent me on my way, with promises that she’d arrive before I walked down the aisle and help me touch up my face and fluff my hair.

She never showed up.

When I look at my photos, my first inclination as someone with a critical eye is to notice how, three hours after I was in her salon, my hair flattened and devolved into a series of sausage curls. Not really the look I was going for (though still better than a bull-dog.) Somehow, without an expert standing nearby, it never occurred to me that I was completely capable of fluffing my own hair and reapplying some eye-liner. It’s not like I haven’t been putting on my own make-up since I got my first compact with three-tone Maybelline blush.

But the thing is, I’d never been a bride before, and I believed other people—experts and married women—knew how to do it better than I did. So I never fluffed, touched-up, or bothered to look in a mirror because it seemed like only someone with a certificate hanging above her twirly chair was qualified to do it.

Earlier in the month I went to my last regular MFA residency before I graduate in July. At a luncheon with my non-fiction genre, a faculty member asked what they could do for us to make the graduate experience better. There were some suggestions for particular presentations and curricular alterations, and then I wondered aloud if they could help us make the leap from student to professional, post graduation. I didn’t have any real idea how they might do this though, so debate amongst the faculty ensued about what they owed students. The loudest of them (and my least favorite), insisted that their responsibility to us is over the minute we graduate. It’s possible they were afraid that sometime in August I’d start sending them drafts of my work and asking for feedback or an agent’s number or advice on how to decorate my writing studio. But that’s not what I meant at all.

I know how to be a student. I know how to write. I’ve been doing both of those things since I was five. I even know how to submit writing and take rejection with a stiff upper lip. And I know that writing is a solitary task. But I have no idea how to envision myself as a professional writer. Because I’ve never been one. My fear is that once I’ve left the cocoon of the MFA program, the magic will disappear and I’ll turn right back into my previous self. With sausage curls.

So what was I asking them for? A hand pulling me onto the shaky ground on the other side of the chasm that separates the novice from the professional? Or maybe a shove from behind to help me make that leap? Illustrations about how their professional lives, outside of teaching, look? Because I didn’t know what I wanted, I assured them that I wasn’t expecting to be invited to a writers’ group that they host.

Since that lunch, I’ve been thinking about what it is I meant when I made the suggestion. I’m still not positive, but I’m beginning to suspect that all I really want is some writer-sage, holding up a mirror, pointing to me, and saying, “This is what a writer looks like.” And maybe, after the sage has given me a chance to admire myself, he or she could add, “Instead of asking asinine questions, go write something.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Owning It

I’m getting to the point – but just barely – where I can call myself a writer. For so long, I’ve guarded it, like it’s a dirty secret, some childhood humiliation I don’t want to admit.

I ignored it for years, writing only the odd paragraph on a piece of scratch paper and tucking it away in my nightstand. It was safe there; no one would ever see it.

I never stopped loving books, that sacred feeling of turning page after page. And I admired the authors, because I was sure it was something I’d never be able to do myself.

I sort of skirted around writing. I did all the writer-ly things without actually writing: majored in English, became a high school English teacher, taught writing, graded essays.

A part of me was hibernating. And then the thaw came – I guess it was around the time I had a left digit change and realized that I could go about my quiet little teaching life for another thirty years or so or I could take a chance. I could own up to it, give in to my true self.

So I did it. I took the plunge – what Annie Dillard described as diving into a cold lake. Once you’re in, she says, it feels okay.

That’s what I was doing all those years, dipping my toe into the water and retreating, afraid of the cold and the gooseflesh, feeling safer on the shore. But now I’m in – head first. I write, I revise, I receive rejection letters, I revise again.

So yeah, I’m a writer. That’s what I do.

Friday, January 22, 2010


A favorite family past-time was puzzles, and the more pieces the better. It consumed an entire table, bits of locked together sections circled by stray pieces awaiting their fate. A thin layer of fuzz, remnants of the cutting process, covered everything.

"You're not pushing hard enough," my dad would say with a chuckle when I tried to cram two mismatched pieces together.

"Maybe I need scissors," I'd counter.

A month ago I wrote a short story and the other day, I realized it didn't work. I liked the characters and enjoyed the general feeling, but it failed. It was just like those mismatched puzzle pieces. There were gaps between the seams and the picture made no sense. Like I was connecting the body of a cow to a barn door.

The problem is, unlike a 1000-piece puzzle, I had no lid to glance at for direction. That's when I closed my laptop, got up from my desk, and hoped I'd find a way to piece it together without any guidance.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Life Without Handrails

I don’t have good balance.

On Mother’s Day, I tripped on a surprisingly dry and neatly edged Seattle sidewalk and sprained my ankle. On my honeymoon on St. Thomas last month, there was unfortunate rock-slippage and a skinned shin when my more agile husband made hopping a jagged, surf-drenched incline from one beach to another seem like a good idea. (He was unscathed, but chivalrous—hiding his laughter behind concerned clucks.)

In perhaps the most embarrassing of all falls, last week during my MFA residency I was so excited about the ice cream that I was taking back to my room that I failed to notice that the steps at Friendly’s were covered in a solid sheet of slickness. If James Cameron filmed a sequel to Avatar, and the main characters were a purple-y bruise color instead of blue, my back could be an extra in crowd shots. All for the love of a Butterfinger sundae.

I wish I could tell you that this was some physical problem that has to do with my inner ear or two left feet, but I am an unbalanced person in non-physical areas as well. If I get a boxed set of Northern Exposure, I watch all the episodes, hour after hour, night after night, until they are done. If I start a puzzle I stay up for two days until it is finished. If someone hands me a box of Marshmallow Peeps—the four-across-five-down tray of snowmen—I eat them all until I’m sick.

This is also how I write.

Yesterday I returned to work after a sabbatical, during which my professional objective was to write (and write and write) and my personal one was to plan a wedding. It was glorious. I’ve never had time to write when I wasn’t interrupted by something else, worthwhile or lame. Other writers carve out swatches of time, write on a schedule, and know intuitively how to protect their craft, but I can’t juggle and have never had prioritizing skills. When I write, it is to a deadline, and I have to stay away from the office, stay away from other people, stay up all night until the work is done.

And yes, the wedding planning did sometimes get more attention than the personal essays I was working on, but there was all that delicious time, and in the end, I chalked up all floral, musical, and sartorial interruptions as fodder for future writing projects. I was so blissfully busy doing all that writing and planning that I barely noticed that I wasn’t doing my day job.

Until yesterday.

I opened the door to my dusty office and discovered how ill prepared I was for the inbox full of student concerns and early excuses, the textbook snafu that left one of my syllabi worthless, the online grading system that I have never completely grasped, the lack of student literary journal that was supposed to have gone to the printer while I was away, the loud office atmosphere, the closed campus café, the politics, and the time I can waste with my conflicting concerns about the blinds in my office: do I raise them and let in the Vitamin D, or do I pull them down and keep my groovy artwork from fading?

The most difficult, most annoying thing about returning to a job that I really do like, was the sudden, sharp realization that I couldn’t write when I wanted. If I had a brilliant thought or sudden inspiration, I couldn’t drop what I was doing and pick up a pen. And because I have that problem with balance, there was no time squirreled away later in the day for doing it either. There was just posting and emailing and preparing and then, finally, a coma-like sleep.

Oh, how I envy those writers who can make and adhere to a schedule. The ones who do not trip over an unexpected dinner invitation, or slip onto the sofa, lying prostrate in front of back-to-back episodes of Hoarders, or crash against an eleventh hour work deadline. (The organized writer in my head doesn’t even have an eleventh hour on her clock.)

And so, twenty days into the new year, I’m giving up envy. I’m resolved that in 2010 I will either learn how to become a balanced writer (a balanced person, really) or how to accept that I am not one, and do it without guilt and without a sense that someone else is doing it better than I am.

I’ll report back from the field.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Draw, Antonio -- draw!

Yesterday, I sat in an airport for six hours. I spent another nine sitting on two planes, which for three of those hours were just parked on the tarmac. If Dante had been exposed to air travel, it would have replaced one of his circles of hell – one of the insignificant ones, like treachery or treason, maybe.

I spent the time being exhausted and hungry. Four hours of sleep and two packs of peanuts just don’t cut it for this girl. I threw back the teensy plastic cups of water so generously provided by Delta/Northwest, sucking the ice cubes for every last drop of moisture. And through it all I was mad, because I had grandly envisioned arriving home in the mid-afternoon, reacquainting myself with the husband and pets, and sitting down with a mug of hot chocolate to begin writing.

Serious writing.

Creative thesis writing.

Deadline looming, under-the-gun writing.

The slow panic I felt leaving Maine, where I scribbled mad to-do lists and began a mental time budget, rose to the level of hysteria thirty thousand miles over Nebraska. I hid it well – cycling between Dexter and 30 Rock on the mini-screen in front of me, but words were racing through my mind, too fast to form into sentences. Breathe, I ordered myself.

But now I’m home, ready to open the file.

And I’m remembering my favorite Michelangelo quote, the words he said to his apprentice: Draw, Antonio; draw, Antonio; draw and do not waste time.

Write, Paula.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Rite of Passage

I'm standing in line at the liquor store, my mother by my side. I hoist my plastic basket onto the Formica counter, the collection of bottles clinking in symphony. The register chirps as the first barcode is scanned.

My mother quietly watches the employee reach for another bottle.

"I drink when I write," I explain.

"You're buying five bottles."

"Yeah, well, I'm writing a lot."

My mother glances into her own hand-basket, eyes the lone bottle leaning against one side. Then she looks up.

"Maybe I should start writing too," she says.