The Writing Life: Writing from the Sidelines by Lisa Ahn

I finished my first novel when I was forty years old and the shock of it, the rifting amazement, nearly carried me away. The pages hadn’t begun as a Book. I hadn’t intended to be a Writer. I’d never made a conscious choice. Writing wasn’t something I planned for myself with any staid determination, roadmap, or direction. But there it was, a novel, complete. Surprise.

The characters themselves had been with me for awhile. For ten years, I had kept them on the sidelines. I worked for a title insurance company, a real estate investment trust. I taught high school English. I got married. I had kids, and, in those early years of motherhood, I learned the stunning power of sleep deprivation, the way it lays you flat. I learned how living for another person turns you inside out in a process of reinvention that is both glorious and terrifying.

And, while I was exhausted and delirious, those sidelined characters, ever patient, saw their opportunity. They stepped onto the field, ready for the game. They were done with the bench. They were ready to play.

I wasn’t a complete stranger to writing. In high school, I produced endless reams of tortured poems. In college, I created stacks of bizarre short stories. I went to graduate school in English and filled my days with essays, conference papers, and a dissertation. I knew the place and pace of words, the allure of stringing them together.

But those sidelined characters wanted something different. For years, they had brewed and stewed and strengthened. They set my fingers to the keys and I snatched twenty, thirty minutes where I could, now and then, around the corners of my days or in the passing lane. The story’s grip began to tighten and I wrote for longer stretches, pressing hours through a sieve. I wrote during the baby’s naps, after bedtime, in weekend marathons when my husband was home, during family dinners when everyone’s mouth was too full for complaint.

I followed the story blindly, caught up in its sure momentum, not paying attention to its length until, one day, I realized that it had the shape and texture of a book. The shock of it was stunning. I had begun without expectations, just leaking words to keep myself from drowning. Now, there was a novel taking shape.

Elated, I sprinted for the finish line, writing in sustained bursts that eclipsed nearly everything else in my life. I wrote and revised and polished and did it all again. At a local copy store, I printed out my tome, anxious, holding my kids’ hands to keep my own from shaking. I mailed the book to a cherished friend, passed it like a chalice to my dad. Here I was, on top of Mt. Everest, pulling a rabbit from my ragged, patchwork hat. Ta Da.

In the thin air of the summit, I envisioned sliding the pages of my book inside a thick manila envelope. I would send them out into the warm embrace of the waiting world. Within months, my book would join the ranks of others on the shelves of my favorite bookstore. The air was thin, indeed. I’d like to refer to this phase of my writing life as youthful optimism, but I’m not sure how well forty counts as youthful. Let’s go with “naiveté” instead.

Book done, I started research into publishing, and my optimism began to cramp. Agents? Query letters? I learned the definition of “earning out” and “remainders” and the slimness of my chances, the unlikelyhood of ever reaching those polished bookstore shelves.

Still, I had managed difficult terrains before – a dissertation, the temper tantrums of my three year old. I knew how to break big tasks into smaller chunks. I dove into the deep end where the water was cold. I embraced the mantle of Writer, with its capital W, its platform and on-line presence and persistence and its thickened, blistered skin in the face of inevitable rejection.

I was a Writer, and this is what Writers do. This was the life, the mold, the proper shape. Most importantly, I knew, Writers write. I wrote when I was sick, when I was hurt, when I was exhausted. I wrote during family vacations and during dinner. I wrote and read and worked. And I made progress – a blog, a modest Twitter following, several publications. I felt a sense of mission and importance. I felt like a Writer, claimed the title, the choice and weight and texture of it. Made it me, made it mine.

And then, last January, I slipped on the ice in one of those clichéd moments where everything, small and large, is contorted into Change. I hit my head, so fast, so lightning smooth, that I don’t remember falling. Nothing but the impact.

I was writing at the time, composing sentences in my head while I walked the dog in the after-effects of freezing rain. It was just two sentences, twenty-nine words, but they were the perfect shape and cadence. I looped the phrasing in my memory like a recording, determined not to lose it.

And then I fell, and hit my head.

“Oh, not the head,” I remember thinking, as the world compressed, a star imploding. “Not the head,” as everything sank and cramped together in a whorl of gathering pain. I must have lain on the asphalt for awhile, the dog waiting, wondering if this was some new, inventive game. Flat on my back on the pavement, I clung to the writing in my head, those two sentences with all their strange complexities. I would not let them go.

I stumbled home and wrote them down – and the fact of this now, in the face of what followed, is strange and stunning and slightly humbling. I had a serious concussion, and for a week I did nothing but sleep. After that, I wandered for months in the myriad effects of post-concussion syndrome. I kept company with headaches and exhaustion, intolerance to light and noise and motion, dizziness and confusion and nausea and anxiety. I couldn’t read, or write, or think. I was a Writer sidelined, all the capital flushed out.

I couldn’t even speak the way that I was used to. Words disappeared when I reached for them. Language was a mist. When I fought against the fog, slogging through the clauses, my head turned into a ring of pain. My eyes, unfocused, jumped across the page. Everything I had learned from scholarship and motherhood was useless. This wasn’t a task to be broken in bits – I was the thing broken, unfixable. Stubborn, I pressed on for awhile until I cried “uncle” and went, miserable, back to bed.

Eventually, I gained a measure of patience, a wider dose of faith, clinging to the belief that this implosion wouldn’t last forever. That I would write again. And I did. But I am not a Writer anymore.

Forty-two is no spring chicken. I have spent a lot of envy on those “Writers Under Forty”, literary stars whose career trajectories shine like blazing glories in a letter-studded sky. I tried to keep myself on track. I was not a Writer Under Forty. But I thought I’d be a Writer, nonetheless.

No matter how many times I find myself stumbling into knowledge, the falling gives me vertigo. I fell and hit my head and the concussion left me sidelined, but it also left me with a gift – the gift of reinvention. I played with the minutes of lengthened days, rearranging them in new and tentative patterns. What if I’d been wrong about How To Be A Writer? What if there was more than one path, more than one cookie-cutter cutout? What if there was another way to write, that didn’t involve the tyranny of that capital letter W?

And there is. I still have post-concussion symptoms. I sleep more than normal. My ears ring all the time. I get headaches and my hands shake, especially when I’m tired. I don’t write every day. I am unfit for any marathon. I am a writer with a little w. When I fell and hit my head, the rules split down the middle. I am a writer over forty, no cause for celebration, no stars blazing in the night. My novel remains unpublished, but I have crafted, from the bench, a plan to revise it yet again. It isn’t a Book anymore. It’s just a story, I am telling.

Writing, the act of it, is moving towards a joy again, as it was during those twenty-minute bursts of creativity stolen from the baby’s naps. In the early days, that bubble-time, I was writing for the love of words, with no finish line in sight. I hadn’t yet seen the looming shadows that line the paths toward publication. I hadn’t yet invented fear. There weren’t any stakes. Falling, being sidelined, allowed me to set aside the looming, to return to a forest of words without a path. I am wandering again, through the playfulness of language. I am out of the shadow of capital letters with all their thorny barbs.

Instead of “I’m a Writer,” let’s just say, “I’m writing.” Today, I prefer the gerund, with all its incompletions, its infinite continuance, its sense of moving on.

lisa ahnLisa Ahn’s writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Spectra Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and RealZest.com, among others. She is a writer and homeschooling mom with a new puppy under foot. Her days begin with a mad scramble and end with a book. In the middle, there is a jumble of multiplication tables, Greek history, biology experiments, piano lessons, and storytelling. She holds onto her sanity with the help of too much caffeine, just enough chocolate, and an abiding love of words.Visit Lisa online: http://lisaahn.com/
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  • Pat

    It is amazing how you take a tragic and painful event and turn it into a meaningful lesson!  Your writing is amazing, and I love your creativity and use of language (even in the midst of post concussion symptoms!).  I can’t believe how you combine your words, sentences into such clear images in the mind.  I particularly love the Wing-Feather Fables on your website!  

    • Thanks so much, my love — you are the one who has to listen to all my complaints. I’m glad I married a patient man 🙂

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  • Joan

    Beautifully written Lisa.

  • I just love this, Lisa.  I’m taking this with me: “Instead of  ‘I’m a Writer, ‘ let’s just say, I’m writing.”  Because the writing, after all, is what it’s all about.

    • Yes — I get so carried away with the trappings of what I think it means to be a Writer, that I sometimes forget why I started writing, for the love of it. Thanks 🙂

  • Oh, gorgeous.  I love, love, love this.  I’m writing, too.  Not a Writer, but writing.  And your company is immensely valuable on this journey.  Thank you.  xox

    • Lindsey, you always give me a huge dose of inspiration. I’m so very glad to have you by my side on the rollercoaster!

  • Jess

    I always eagerly read what you write.  Pause for reflection.  You are an inspiration!

    • Well, I usually feel like a mess — thank you!

  • It continues to amaze me that while our skulls are so strong, they cannot protect us from everything. Traumatic brain injury is a very really condition. Having survived a very serious case of meningitis in 2008, I worked hard to regain my pre-illness mind. How fortunate I am to have some minor deficits. (Of course, the concussion I sustained a year ago at my daughter’s roller skating party didn’t help…) A colleague of mine had a fall similar to yours that has left her completely altered. She can no longer work. At all. She writes, when she is able, as a way of dealing with the emotional and spiritual pain that accompanies the physical pain.

    Thank you for sharing your journey. It is a reminder how delicate our bodies can be and how we can grow from our setbacks in previously unimaginable ways.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this story.  Like you, I never realized how easily the brain could be injured — or how such an injury could unseat the rest of my life. I’m glad you are doing better from both the illness and the concussion — a hard double blow. I hope your co-worker continues to heal as well. All best.

  • Oh, but you are a writer, whether it’s with a capital letter, with a badge of honour, with a Twitter following or what not… You have the words and the ability to make us stop in our tracks and ponder and feel something new.  Thank you for this very candid and poignant confession.

    • Thank you for such a lovely and encouraging reply.

  • This was so wonderful, Lisa! And it shows what a writer (big or little W) you are; from your reaction as soon as you fell, to the beautiful way you wrote this post, you are very unique and talented! I think most of us can relate to wanting to get back to a time when writing was for the love of it; as soon as the idea of getting published is involved, that fear really does come and suck all the fun out of it! 

    • Yes! As soon as I begin to think about what to “do” with a story or essay — instead of just writing it — all the fun is sucked away. Argh! Someday maybe I’ll learn to just settle down and write without the worry at my back. I’d love to hear if you have any tricks to help with that process!

  • I love how this reflection speaks to the Shangri-La story and vice versa. Great reminders, filled with sharp observations, about the power of doing, being, experiencing what is, right now, instead of getting distracted by labels and shoulds and comparisons. Thanks for reminding me of what is most rewarding about writing. 

    • I just read the Shangri-La essay and I definitely see the comparisons you mention here about focusing on what is. Good Buddhist lesson!! I also loved your “Toothbrush” essay. It was so powerful and poignant.

  • I loved this. Last December, I fell and broke my writing hand. Learned to use voice recognition software, because writers have to write, broken hands or concussions or whatever else gets in the way of bringing our stories to the light. You captured the real meaning of ‘writer’ and gave me encouragement to keep on, and ignore the clamor of competition among us all. Blessings on you and your writing for many years to come. (I am WAY over forty!) LOL

    • Linda, I hope your hand has healed well. I’ve thought about trying the voice recognition software. I’ve been resisting it because my writing process is so connected to physically putting words on the page, but maybe I need to reinvent my process. Thanks for the tip and the feedback. Blessings to you as well. 🙂

  • I love this piece so much, and it describes how I have felt so many times in the past year. For me, as a writer ten years further down the path, I’ve realized that I too have no cause for celebration, that I am a writer with a small w, and that as many stories as I write, I may never get a book published. But I too am trying to reconnect to the joy of writing — those “twenty minute bursts of creativity stolen from the baby’s naps.” So beautifully told, Lisa!

    • Julia, communicating with you has been one of the great joys of my writing journey during the past year. Thanks for the companionship, commiseration, and encouragement!

  • I’m really loving the conversation here. Wonderful stuff! 

  • Brenda

    Lisa – labels are so powerful – a magic both good and bad. I’m glad you have found your way back to joy, to sheer delight in language and words and your stories. That you have gently placed that capital “W” down, with all its expectations and fears, and picked up “I’m writing” instead. Because you MUST continue to bring us the beauty of your words. The world would be smaller without.  

    • Thanks Brenda — one of my greatest writing joys is our Wing-Feather Fable collaboration!!
      (http://lisaahn.com/wing-feather-fables/) Your photographs always inspire me. 
      The discussion of capital or lower-case W for writing makes me think of the several conversations we’ve had on your blog about the meaning of “art” and how we create. Lots to think about! (http://www.gottgraphicsdesign.com/)

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