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.