2015111095125545Coraline’s been sleeping on her own lately, and this morning I sent Mia off to catch the bus to school and am now sitting in a quiet house, enjoying hot coffee for exactly 35 minutes and counting. I want to poke my head in to the bedroom to check on her, but I know it’ll wake her up. I get moments to myself at night, too, and end up pacing a little, ready to jump out of my seat if I hear her whimper. Her sleeping on her own has been one of those quiet moments of success that give me a chance to breathe without asking someone to help me do it.
Yesterday I did an interview for a radio station in Australia about the housecleaning essay Vox published back in July. The essay I’m turning into a book. I have to pinch myself often that this is my life. Yesterday was definitely not an exception, feeling a literal 15 minutes of fame. I had friends come over to listen to it, had a few beers, and ordered out for pizza. Coraline covered herself in spaghetti and we all patted our bellies full of food we didn’t have to cook ourselves.
It’s hard for me to celebrate, and it was especially hard for me to invite friends over to celebrate with me. I usually allow moments like this to pass. I believe that if I give them attention, I might jinx them in some way. If I poke my head in to check on them, recognizing they exist, they’ll vanish.
DSCN2175I’ve been going out on dates lately. I’m not totally sure I even want a boyfriend, and “relationship” has the same ick-factor of the word “moist” when I say it, but I thought it’d be good to try. I am happy single, but there are moments, during the holidays especially, where walking down a street alone in the midst of bundled up couples is too much to bear without feeling a little tug of sadness and wanting.
One of my dates asked about my writing, since I put in my online profile that I wrote for a living and it was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was ten. I told him I’d published some essays, and had kept a journal since I was a kid. He nodded in a “that’s nice” sort of way.
Later in the date he asked what I had going on that weekend and I told him about the Australian radio live interview. His jaw opened and his eyes got wide, and I went on to explain who I wrote for regularly and that I was preparing a book proposal for an agent who’d contacted me.
“I didn’t realize I was sitting across from a famous person!” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that in a joking or sarcastic way or not.
I turned my head and said, “Yeah, I guess I’m a little famous.”
Being able to tell people about my job isn’t about that, though. For years I battled overcoming an inner voice in my head, the voice of my ex, who said I was worthless and that no one was ever going to love me. He said I was selfish for pursuing a college degree in writing, because I’d always be struggling and costing the tax payers money from being on government assistance.
Being able to tell people about my job is being able to say that I am successful. A professional, even, though most of my writing is done half-lidded and in pajama pants. I’m just at the start of my career, and it’s something I have to pinch myself over daily. I’ve had so many years, the last five especially, of showing my writing to people and being rejected, heavily edited, or watched them frown and tell me it needs some work. So I worked at it. It’s exciting to have things click, to find my voice and have the courage to use it, and get paid to write.
I almost threw up yesterday after the interview. It was only 15 minutes and I had no idea how many people had tuned in to listen, or just happened to be in a place on Monday morning in Australia where the radio was on that channel. My dog had horrifyingly barked through the middle and I fought through the distraction, but still felt awful. I had to stop. And breathe. And give myself that quiet moment of recognition. Not to relish, but to give credit: “You’ve worked hard to get here. Sit and enjoy it for a second.”
I guess I could say that about just about anything, but those moments are my favorites. Getting a chance to drink hot coffee in a quiet house ranks pretty high on the scale, too, though.
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Lately my nights are no longer a sleep, but naps lasting a few hours that I awaken from often. Work is this never-ending thing that I feel guilty stepping away from. I feel guilty watching a movie. Because deadlines and assignments and research projects and all the reading I must do. Then to write. And edit. And rewrite.
My recent and startling ability to pay bills and have enough money in the bank to pay another month’s worth has thrown me into a battle of comfort and mistrust. I feel like I should be working even harder to maintain my momentum. Because who knows when the floor will drop out again. Who knows when the truck will break down, or when I run out of stories to tell.
Every word and thought and event seems to shape itself into a beginning middle and end in a perfect 800-word format that I can send off in a pitch.
Yet my life feels pretty dull. I work around the clock, looking for subject matters, writing, waiting on emails, hunting down payments, and in the midst is a toddler and kid and dog who I love but only have a few minutes at a time for. I crave showers and eating while sitting. I pass invitations to go out due to exhaustion and being past the point of unkempt and because my right eye is permanently bloodshot and I’m not sure why other than maybe I just keep it open too much but then wouldn’t the left one be red too?
I know there’s balance in here somewhere. I know this is hard because of Coraline’s age and my lack of affording full-time child care. But maybe I like this life. This nocturnal existence I’ve created for myself, staying up past midnight to tap at a keyboard, writing and forgetting.

The New Apartment

Our apartment in 2010, above the freeway in Mount Vernon, Washington.


I’ve been writing about our little studio we lived in five years ago a lot lately, in such a nostalgic way. I thought we wouldn’t get out of there. For a time I thought I’d clean houses for years, possibly a decade. I thought that little room and those piles of dirty rags and the car that constantly broke down was our fate. I thought that was what being a single mom meant.
I used to sit out on our porch at night, after I’d wrestled Mia into bed, chain smoking rolled cigarettes and drinking when I could afford it, and sometimes when I couldn’t. The days hollowed me, and left me shocked in my shell. I miss it, the crinkling of the paper and the yellowed fingers. The stained lips from wine in jugs and scribbling in journals by the light of an outside yellow bulb. I miss being that romantic notion of the artist, and a tortured one at that. Maybe I just miss the smoking, though I don’t, really.
It’s almost 12:30 and I should peel off my clothes and go to bed. I need to get up early. I need to nurse Cora through the night while she turns herself in circles in the bed, snuggling up to me one minute and kicking me the next. I’ll have dreams about hiding under thin sheets with a man in beach houses under swaying palms where sand-filled shoes are left by the door. I dream my skin is tight with a fresh burn from the sun and wake up to the dryness of the Montana winter that is slowly creeping in this year and its looming makes me nervous.
I hesitate to write on my personal platform about struggles I have. Because I do love this life. I know my old self who climbs and hikes and gets out of the house often to dance is around the bend. That raising babies on your own is tough and unimaginably hard and I’m not sure how I do it most of the time. But it was nice to decide to write here. To know that this writing is for me.
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For a lifelong introvert, freelancing is not exactly a career of choice.
The last year has been one, long, continuous struggle to get people to notice me. I’d historically been an avid Facebook user, but only with people I’d quickly agree to have coffee with. Deciding to freelance meant building a platform. It meant blogging again, an act that took me nearly six months to do after being on hiatus for two years. It meant adding every acquaintance, every high school classmate, every person I’d sort-of-heard-of-maybe-even-seen-once-in-person as a Facebook friend. That was enough, for a while.

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My Bukowski “Bluebird” Tattoo

For most of the last three years since I’ve been submitting work for publication, I’ve given the equivalent of a public reading of my own work to maybe a few hundred people at a time or less. Instead of being on stage, I’m in the middle of a swarming stadium, and the ones listening are peppered throughout crowd. I longed to write something that people would stop and pay attention to.
“I just want to go viral for all the right reasons,” I said to a friend, a week before I did.
When it was all happening, and the bad comments were coming in and my blog had 60,000 hits, I ducked even harder into my little apartment. I read articles on going viral, because what constitutes as going viral anyway, and found this quote from Elyse Anders of Mofo Nation, who’d experienced her share of negativity. “But when it comes at you when something goes viral, you can’t make it go away that easily,” she said. “It’s like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you’re standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.” I’d gotten what I’d longed for. Everyone, all hundreds of thousands of them, had noticed me reading my essay. But some of them went to great lengths to call me a cockroach.
I’d had an agent contact me and put all of my time and energy into getting a first chapter of my book written, and decided to focus on scenes I rarely tell close friends. Eventually, I started eating regularly again. Well, if you consider frozen pizza to be “regular.” I got Mia back and everything was back to normal. But I was changed.
DSCN5133Sherman Alexie’s been known to call the feeling after reading his work in front of people a “Vulnerability Hangover.” When I’d told my neighbor how many people had clicked on my articles that weekend, she said, “That’s like, more people than the entire state of Montana!” My friends started calling me “the famous writer,” even though I repeatedly brushed it off.
With highs come the lows, and then a settling. What now?
For the last few weeks, I’ve taken a crash course in freelancing by way of a few Facebook groups and many late nights of reading how-to articles and publications I want to submit to. I have a list of editor emails open on my desk. I’ve made close to 20 pitches. I’ve sent out that first chapter for review and have started an ebook. I work every possible moment that I can, staying up until two in the morning most nights with a sleeping 14-month-old in my lap. My wine consumption has increased, as with the coffee, and visiting the deli at the hippie store down the block.
Being an essay writer and spending hours and days and weeks on writing about things where you are the main character is not especially fun. There are some nights that I get so sick of my own self I shut the laptop, then open it again a few minutes later with a sigh.
An essay going viral didn’t prove that I was a good writer. I still have a hard time believing I am a lot of the time. Sure, there are titles that people click on more than others, but I kept hearing from people that they’d started to read my article and couldn’t stop. They appreciated the honesty. They told me that again and again.
I had a piece go up on The Mid today. It was something I’d written like I am writing now—late at night, with a glass of wine, and while nursing a baby. In the past, I anticipated getting published by reading what I wrote obsessively, trying to calm my fear of telling the story. This time, I read it on the site the day it came out, all the way to the end in one go, without cringing at sentences that could have been said better. At the last sentence my first thought was, “Wow. That was good!” instead of wishing I could retract my submission like crumpling a paper and throwing it in the wastebasket.
Putting myself out there as a freelancer and book-writer-dare-I-say-author meant winging it in the worst way at first. Because I still wanted to be a writer that I wasn’t. I wanted to be the lyrical, poetic description, literary author.
But I’m not that kind of writer.
I don’t fluff. I don’t wring every last ounce of emotion out of sentences. I write, for the most part, like I speak. I tell stories. I have conversations. I found that voice a long time ago, but going viral gave me the courage to speak it clearly, despite the crowd.
And, it turns out, from the looks of the scraps of paper and notebooks with barely legible notes scrawled in them, I have a lot to say.
So, there’s that.
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It’s been a year. Almost. Both of my girls were conceived on my birthday. Mia came on her due date of June 21. Coraline showed up five hours after hers had passed on the 16th. They both came so fast. Mia in four hours, and born at home. Coraline came in a quick, white-knuckled hour, and just barely at a birth center. In the next week, Cora will turn one and Mia will turn eight.

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Photo by Logan Parson

A friend asked me once what my biggest fear was with having a second daughter on my own, and I said the exhaustion. I feared being emptied out to the point I wouldn’t be able to scrape together enough to be a good mom, or be good to myself. This morning we all sat around our kitchen table eating from a bowl of apricots, blueberries, strawberries, and plums. We all laugh a healthy amount, the baby smiles all the time and exceeds most developmental milestones, and Mia is advanced in reading, writing and math. I worked over 30 hours last week at three different freelancing gigs. From an outside perspective, it looks like we’re skating through, sailing smooth, and accomplishing life without a hitch. But a few things have become normal in the last year that I probably wouldn’t have been paid enough to do without them if you’d asked me a couple of years ago:

  1. I no longer eat dairy. Yup. I went from eating almost nothing but dairy before Coraline was born to feeling like I’d throw up if I ate any. I’ve tried bringing it back by sneaking it in here or there, but I always regret it. My diet was already limited by a lack of wheat flour, but since Coraline, I’ve removed all dairy (including chocolate), peanuts/peanut butter, pineapples, onions, garlic, bananas, most cane sugars, eggs that aren’t organic (expensive) and I think that might be it. The only explanation is a known grass allergy, so eating any plant that begins by shooting a single blade out of the dirt first doesn’t jive with me. I asked an allergist about this, and she shrugged, said that could be a good hypothesis, then added, “pregnancy fucks up your system.” Thanks.
  2. I don’t have sex. I don’t have sex with myself. The thought of it makes me nauseous. I have a hard time kissing Mia on the lips. I tried to overcome this last fall, and it was pretty exciting and great for a week or two, probably because I really really wanted it to be. I wanted Coraline to know some sort of male figure. I wanted Mia to have someone to play with. But having a horny, hairy man in my bed was not worth the trouble. He decided I wasn’t, either, pretty quickly in one conversation a week before Christmas, which totally sucked. But I’m pretty happy doing this gig with as little amount of boy drama as possible.
  3. Photo by Logan Parson

    Photo by Logan Parson

    I am always (besides one saving grace day of daycare) in a three-foot radius of a baby who cries if anyone else tries to hold her. Coraline is attached to me. She is my sweet, happy, cuddly monkey. Mia was a completely different baby. I was her caretaker and a point of reference in the wide radius that was her world to explore. By the time she was a year old, she’d mastered several words, had started walking (often away from me in large distances), and we spent a lot of time apart. She visited her dad and went to daycare. She slept in her own bed. She didn’t like to be held close. Coraline doesn’t like to lose eye contact with me. She sleeps on my chest or in my armpit. She’ll fall asleep in her car seat, but I haven’t had any luck getting her to sleep without touching me in some way otherwise. At near one-years-old, she still seems like a baby to me, when Mia was already on her way to being an independent toddler.

  4. I rarely drink alcohol, quit smoking, and don’t miss them like I thought I would in those times I said I should give them up. I also eat primarily organic, cook all my meals at home from ingredients and not a box, and, due to the recent acquiring of a dog, walk about two miles a day. I still haven’t gotten back into rock climbing, but it’s hopefully on the horizon.
  5. I don’t sleep. I mean, I do, but hardly. I stay up past midnight working most nights, and get about three hours of good sleep before Cora wakes me up to nurse or my back wakes me up because it’s in varying degrees of pain.
  6. I don’t give a shit what other people think. I don’t have a problem saying “no” to social things. I love, love, love spending a quiet day of just me and Coraline, which I often get to do.
  7. I work from home. Like, actually work on a computer, getting paid to write. People send me paychecks because I wrote something they liked. Okay, maybe this one will never be normal.
  8. We live in a two-bedroom apartment with our own washer and dryer that we can afford. Again, another thing that was beyond my wildest dreams.
  9. I don’t go out to eat. I don’t sit on patios to have a beer with friends. I don’t go out past dark. I am usually either working, taking care of kids or a dog, eating, sleeping, showering (sometimes), or watching a show on Netflix or scrolling through a Facebook feed until my vision gets blurry. I don’t read. I hardly write my own stuff. It’s a rare moment that I sit, relaxed, with my eyes closed and face pointed to the sun.
  10. I’m happy. Sure, I get grumpy, mad, sad, stressed to the point of anxiety attack, and whatever. But for the most part, I am possibly the happiest I’ve ever been. Maybe it’s the work-load. Maybe I’m just one of those people who’s only happy if she’s working all the time. Possibly. I am surrounded by laughter, ridiculously cute moments, sweet sighs, snuggles, and cute, comical antics. How could I not be happy?

DSCN1657It’s weird to be this healthy. I’m 36 and fitting into pants I never thought I’d be able to get past my thighs again. I’d love to get a vacation. Or even a staycation. I’d love to go out to eat with a friend. It’ll happen. Coraline, sadly, won’t be a baby forever, a thought that gets me through the frustration of not getting a break. I have years where I’ll be able to sit on patios over brunch and mimosas. But this time right now will be the minutes I’ll wish I could get back.
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Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech to the University of the Arts found me a couple of years ago. At the time, I’d just lived through the equivalent of a mother’s existential dilemma. I have a scattering of essays I’ve tried to write about that time, those months, but keeping it in my past has been enough. We’ve recovered. Well, we still work at recovering.
Snapshot_20130319_1Pursing an art degree as a single mom has always been a struggle for me. Not just in the act of going to school. I felt like my status as a solo mom and a low-income one at that didn’t allow me art degrees. I thought I should be getting a two-year degree for a fast-track path to getting a job as an administrative assistant. Anything that would earn me an 8-5 office job with some benefits and enough pay to just barely not qualify for government assistance. And that would be my life. I’d wake up, get the kids ready, and go to work.
But that’s never been my life.
Working as a freelancer adds a special sort of stress. Yes, you make your own hours, are your own boss, and don’t have to ask permission to take a day off. But you don’t apply once for work. You apply again and again. You have work disappear and you have no one to go to for more hours. It’s up to you to get out there, promote yourself, and earn their trust that you’ll do a good job.
Two weeks ago I wrote about feeling despaired over not having any work. In the last week I’ve started my position at an academic writing firm with a vengeance. I have one client I’ll write content for. ESME.net asked me to write a few pieces for them. And I still have my editing job with MissoulaEvents. It’s finally enough for the words “I WORK” to flash in my mind. It’s a sense of pride to pay the bills and have a little bit left over. It’s a sense of hope to think I might be on track to having enough to pay off the debts I’ve been making minimum payments on to keep in good standing.
It’s a sense of maybe feeling like my refusal to sink into a full-time office job until I retire, get tattooed all over my arms, and stubbornly try to hack a writing career out of nothing but my own determination was a pretty awesome idea. That’s always been my mountain, like Gaiman speaks of.
Then this happened.
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It’s like a nod. A congratulatory nod. It’s a blessing. Not because I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. I’m nowhere near it. But I kept trekking. I keep trekking.
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Coraline turns ten months in a few days. She’s standing on her own. She signs “hi” at her own appropriate times, but hardly ever when I ask if she wants to wave at a friend who’s waving back. I often find her signing a combination of “more” and hand-clapping for “yay!” when she’s playing or eating.
I feel the same way about work.
0411151313Since my last entry, I had an essay published in a local magazine. I got hired on as a writer for a website specifically for single moms. My employment with another writing firm completely took off as well, leaving me a little bewildered, but saying “more!yay!” in my mind. I add up dollars over and over, planning for the bills I can pay off, the money I can save, and the possible road trip we can take.
I’m looking at a daycare for Coraline this week, which hurts a little. But I can’t go on staying up until 1 or 2 every night working like this while trying to get a good 20 minutes in here and there during the day. I guess I could for a little longer. I’ve gotten used to working at all hours of the day, every day, at something. I’ve been going non-stop for a few months. Trying. Trying to get to where I am now.
Fifteen years ago, I thought I’d grow up one day and be a writer. Ten years ago I wanted to get paid for it. And five years ago I started the journey to get the degree so I could.
Babies, we just might make it.
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“I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name…”
And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that’s unique. You have the ability to make art.
And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.”
-Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Keynote Address, University of the Arts, 2012

Emilia and Coraline

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HOW TO BECOME A WRITER

by Lorrie Moore
First, try to be something, anything, else.  A movie star/astronaut.  A movie star missionary.  A movie star/kindergarten teacher.  President of the World.  Fail miserably.  It is best if you fail at an early age — say, fourteen.  Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.  It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain.  Count the syllables.
Show it to your mom.  She is touch and practical.  She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair.  She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots.  She’ll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut.  She’ll say: “How about emptying the dishwasher?”  Look away.  Shove the forks in the fork drawer.  Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses.  This is the required pain and suffering.  This is only for
starters.
In your high school English class look only at Mr. Killian’s face.  Decide faces are important. Write a villanelle about pores.  Struggle.  Write a sonnet.  County the syllables:  nine, ten, eleven, thirteen.  Decide to experiment with fiction.  Here you don’t have to count syllables.

Write a short story about an elderly man and woman who accidentally shoot each other in the head, the result of an inexplicable malfunction of a shotgun which appears mysteriously in their living room one night.  Give it to Mr. Killian as your final project.  When you get it back, he has written on it:  “Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.”  When you are home, in the privacy of your own room, faintly crawl in pencil beneath his black-inked
comments:  “Plots are for dead people, pore-face.”

Take all the babysitting jobs you can get.  You are great with kids.  They love you.  You tell them stories about old people who die idiot deaths.  You sing them songs like “Blue Bells of Scotland,” which is their favorite.  And when they are in their pajamas and have finally stopped pinching each other, when they are fast asleep, you read every sex manual in the house, and wonder how on earth anyone could ever do those things with someone they truly loved.  Fall
asleep in a chair reading Mr. McMurphy’s Playboy.  When the McMurphys come home, they will tap you on the shoulder, look at the magazine in your lap, and grin.  You will want to die.  They will ask you if Tracey took her medicine all right.  Explain, yes, she did, that you promised her a story if she would take it like a big girl and that seemed to work out just fine.  “Oh, marvelous” they will exclaim.
Try to smile proudly.
Apply to college as a child psychology major.
As a child psychology major, you have some electives.  You’ve always liked birds.  Sign up for something called, “The Ornithological Field Trip.”  It meets Tuesdays and Thursdays at two. When you arrive at Room 134 on the first day of class, everyone is sitting around a seminar table talking about metaphors.  You’ve heard of these.  After a short, excruciating while, raise your hand and say diffidently, “Excuse me, isn’t this Birdwatching One-oh-one?”  The class tops
and turns to look at you.  They seem to have one face — giant and blank as a vandalized clock.
Someone with a beard booms out, “No, this is Creative Writing.”  Say:  “Oh — right,” as if perhaps you knew all along.  Look down at your schedule.  Wonder how the hell you ended up here.  The computer, apparently, has made an error.  You start to get up to leave and then don’t.  The lines at the reistrar this week are huge.  Perhaps your creative writing isn’t all that bad.  Perhaps it is fate.  Perhaps this is what your dad meant when he said, “It’s the age of computers, Francie, it’s the age of computers.”
Decide that you like college life.  In your dorm you meet many nice people.  Some are smarter than you.  And some, you notice, are dumber than you. You will continue, unfortunately, to view the world in exactly these terms for the rest of your life.
The assignment this week in creative writing is to narrate a violent happening. Turn in a story about driving with your Uncle Gordon and another one about two old people who are accidentally electrocuted when they go to turn on a badly wired desk lamp. The teacher will hand them back to you with comments: ”Much of your writing is smooth and energetic. You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot.” Write another story about a man and a woman who, in the very first
paragraph, have their lower torsos accidentally blitzed away by dynamite. In the second paragraph, with the insurance money, they buy a frozen yogurt stand together. There are six more paragraphs. You read the whole thing out loud in class. No one likes it. They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent. After class someone asks you if you are crazy.
Decide that perhaps you should stick to comedies. Start dating someone who is funny, someone who has what in high school you called a ”really great sense of humor” and what now your creative writing class calls ”self-contempt giving rise to comic form.” Write down all of his jokes, but don’t tell him you are doing this. Make up anagrams of his old girlfriend’s name and name all of your socially handicapped characters with them. Tell him his old girlfriend is in all of
your stories and then watch how funny he can be, see what a really great sense of humor he can have.
Your child psychology adviser tells you you are neglecting courses in your major. What you spend the most time on should be what you’re majoring in. Say yes, you understand.
In creative writing seminars over the next two years, everyone continues to smoke cigarettes and ask the same things: ”But does it work?” ”Why should we care about this character?” ”Have you earned this cliche?” These seem like important questions.  On days when it is your turn, you look at the class hopefully as they scour your mimeographs for a plot. They look back up at you, drag deeply and then smile in a sweet sort of way.
You spend too much time slouched and demoralized. Your boyfriend suggests bicycling. Your roommate suggests a new boyfriend. You are said to be self-mutilating and losing weight, but you continue writing. The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen. You have only those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius.
Understand what you must do. Switch majors. The kids in your nursery project will be disappointed, but you have a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit. You have, as your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd.
Why write? Where does writing come from? These are questions to ask yourself. They are like: Where does dust come from? Or: Why is there war? Or: If there’s a God, then why is my brother now a cripple?
These are questions that you keep in your wallet, like calling cards. These are questions, your creative writing teacher says, that are good to address in your journals but rarely in your fiction.
The writing professor this fall is stressing the Power of the Imagination. Which means he doesn’t want long descriptive stories about your camping trip last July. He wants you to start in a realistic context but then to alter it. Like recombinant DNA. He wants you to let your imagination sail, to let it grow big-bellied in the wind. This is a quote from Shakespeare.
Tell your roommate your great idea, your great exercise of imaginative power: a transformation of Melville to contemporary life. It will be about monomania and the fish-eat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, N.Y. The first line will be ”Call me Fishmeal,” and it will feature a menopausal suburban husband named Richard, who because he is so depressed all the time is called ”Mopey Dick” by his witty wife Elaine. Say to your roommate: ”Mopey Dick, get it?”
Your roommate looks at you, her face blank as a large Kleenex. She comes up to you, like a buddy, and puts an arm around your burdened shoulders. ”Listen, Francie,” she says, slow as speech therapy. ”Let’s go out and get a big beer.”
The seminar doesn’t like this one either. You suspect they are beginning to feel sorry for you. They say: ”You have to think about what is happening. Where is the story here?”
The next semester the writing professor is obsessed with writing from personal experience. You must write from what you know, from what has happened to you. He wants deaths, he wants camping trips. Think about what has happened to you. In three years there have been three things: you lost your virginity; your parents got divorced; and your brother came home from a forest 10 miles from the Cambodian border with only half a thigh, a permanent smirk nestled into one corner of his mouth.
About the first you write: ”It created a new space, which hurt and cried in a voice that wasn’t mine, ‘I’m not the same anymore, but I’ll be O.K.’ ”
About the second you write an elaborate story of an old married couple who stumble upon an unknown land mine in their kitchen and accidentally blow themselves up. You call it: ”For Better or for Liverwurst.”
About the last you write nothing. There are no words for this. Your typewriter hums. You can find no words.
At undergraduate cocktail parties, people say, ”Oh, you write? What do you write about?” Your roommate, who has consumed too much wine, too little cheese and no crackers at all, blurts: ”Oh, my god, she always writes about her dumb boyfriend.”
Later on in life you will learn that writers are merely open, helpless texts with no real understanding of what they have written and therefore must half-believe anything and everything that is said of them. You, however, have not yet reached this stage of literary criticism. You stiffen and say, ”I do not,” the same way you said it when someone in the fourth grade accused you of really liking oboe lessons and your parents really weren’t just making you take them.
Insist you are not very interested in any one subject at all, that you are interested in the music of language, that you are interested in – in – syllables, because they are the atoms of poetry, the cells of the mind, the breath of the soul. Begin to feel woozy. Stare into your plastic wine cup. ”Syllables?” you will hear someone ask, voice trailing off, as they glide slowly toward the reassuring white of the dip.
Begin to wonder what you do write about. Or if you have anything to say. Or if there even is such a thing as a thing to say. Limit these thoughts to no more than 10 minutes a day, like sit- ups, they can make you thin.
You will read somewhere that all writing has to do with one’s genitals. Don’t dwell on this. It will make you nervous.
Your mother will come visit you. She will look at the circles under your eyes and hand you a brown book with a brown briefcase on the cover. It is entitled: ”How to Become a Business Executive.” She has also brought the ”Names for Baby” encyclopedia you asked for; one of your characters, the aging clown-schoolteacher, needs a new name. Your mother will shake her head and say: ”Francie, Francie, remember when you were going to be a child psychology
major?”
Say: ”Mom, I like to write.”
She’ll say: ”Sure you like to write. Of course. Sure you like to write.”
Write a story about a confused music student and title it: ”Schubert Was the One with the Glasses, Right?” It’s not a big hit, although your roommate likes the part where the two violinists accidentally blow themselves up in a recital room. ”I went out with a violinist once,” she says, snapping her gum.
Thank god you are taking other courses. You can find sanctuary in 19th-century ontological snags and invertebrate courting rituals. Certain globular mollusks have what is called ”Sex by the Arm.” The male octopus, for instance, loses the end of one arm when placing it inside the female body during intercourse. Marine biologists call it ”Seven Heaven.” Be glad you know these
things. Be glad you are not just a writer. Apply to law school.
From here on in, many things can happen. But the main one will be this: You decide not to go to law school after all, and, instead, you spend a good, big chunk of your adult life telling people how you decided not to go to law school after all. Somehow you end up writing again.
Perhaps you go to graduate school. Perhaps you work odd jobs and take writing courses at night. Perhaps you are working and writing down all the clever remarks and intimate personal confessions you hear during the day. Perhaps you are losing your pals, your acquaintances, your balance.
You have broken up with your boyfriend. You now go out with men who, instead of whispering ”I love you,” shout: ”Do it to me, baby.” This is good for your writing.
Sooner or later you have a finished manuscript more or less. People look at it in a vaguely troubled sort of way and say, ”I’ll bet becoming a writer was always a fantasy of yours, wasn’t it?” Your lips dry to salt. Say that of all the fantasies possible in the world, you can’t imagine being a writer even making the top 20. Tell them you were going to be a child psychology major.
”I bet,” they always sigh, ”you’d be great with kids.” Scowl fiercely. Tell them you’re a walking blade.
Quit classes. Quit jobs. Cash in old savings bonds. Now you have time like warts on your hands. Slowly copy all of your friends’ addresses into a new address book. Vacuum. Chew cough drops. Keep a folder full of fragments.
An eyelid darkening sideways.
World as conspiracy.
Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus.
Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came.

At home drink a lot of coffee. At Howard Johnson’s order the cole slaw. Consider how it looks like the soggy confetti of a map: where you’ve been, where you’re going – ”You Are Here,” says the red star on the back of the menu.
Occasionally a date with a face blank as a sheet of paper asks you whether writers often become discouraged. Say that sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it’s a lot like having polio.
”Interesting,” smiles your date, and then he looks down at his arm hairs and starts to smooth them, all, always, in the same direction.
From ”Self-Help,” a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore. Copyright 1985 by M. L. Moore.

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