What I’m about to write—this doesn’t have to be about writing at all—you can read this and imagine it’s about anything you love. Anything that you’re trying to hold on to as you spin off into this world.
In Seymour—An Introduction, J.D. Salinger writes: “Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never.”
I am pacing my bedroom in bare feet after work one evening. It’s late. There is an acceptance letter in my hand. I had been crying, but I was cooling off—the weight was starting to evaporate. I was on the phone.
“Why did you apply for MFAs now?” My friend—an old friend—asks me.
“Well, ehm, its—MFAs—are more of a romantic pursuit for me than anything. They are like, make believe. To me. A fantasy. I’ve been dreaming of MFAs since I was like, eight.”
“I mean I know that,” she said. “I know you. I meant, why now?”
“Oh, you take writing courses?” A coworker, who works in the creative department, once asked me when I mentioned I had to leave for class at 6:45 that evening.
“Yeah, for a while, it’s like, my thing.”
“Oh. That makes me respect you more.”
This insulted me.
“I like to write, too. You know,” she said, “when I write these ads for brands, I just think of the brand as… as the main character of a story. And I try to figure out how they would talk, what they would say, in that framework.”
After the meeting ended, I rode down the elevator alone balancing a laptop and a ceramic mug of coffee and a pile of highlighted papers in my arms thinking, Was that the most depressing thing I had ever heard or a good tip?
The jury’s still out.
I think about how I do write for these brands. And these things I write for these brands reach millions and millions of people. And how I’ll never have that sort of reach when I write for myself. Did I ever want that sort of reach? Writing was never about that for me, the romantic MFA was never about that, the old book with my name on it turning yellow on my bookshelf was never about that. I never considered readership or celebrity or reach. It was always just, writing. Writing was the only thing I really believed in.
Why did I apply to MFAs now? Emphasis on the now. So I would be forced to reconsider my life? Some internal, perverted trick I played on myself? Did I really think MFAs were make believe? So I extended my arm, reached out and tried to touch it, just to see what would happen?
“Mary Lorraine, I’m calling to let you know how impressed the board was with your application. We still haven’t heard from you regarding your decision, if you need any assistance at all—” He continues talking but I’ve stopped listening to my voicemail. I take the whole call and email follow up as more of a scam for my enrollement money than as a compliment. What’s become of me!
You know what was my biggest hesitation about getting married? The one con to the pros? The thought I’d try to shoo away when I was walking alone? That I was just too happy. And if I got married I’d stay this way—happy and content. Being happy, persistently content, has never been good for my writing. Being lonely and stuck in some weird place far, far away from the people I love are much better ingredients for me.
But I’m beginning to get it. How people just start to clam up. How you can’t really talk about how you feel anymore. (Or maybe I’m not supposed to feel this way?) It’s not worth the risk to reveal your uncertainties, to reveal the things you think about when you’re walking alone. When you missed the subway and you are pacing on the platform. When you had a glass of wine and nobody is home. It’s not worth the risk to put these thoughts into writing and risk your job, risk putting all of your cards onto the table.
So we clam up. Let the heavy things evaporate. Or! We write these thoughts into other people, into our characters and into our stories. That’s what writers have the luxury to do.
Here. This is a part of a story that I wrote, years ago, when I was far, far away from everything—
“Mom,” I laughed. I set the last plate on the drying rack and went to the table. There was a full ashtray. There was a picture of me on a horse when I was younger that had been sitting on the kitchen table for years. The window over the table was open and there was a good breeze. It made the old beige doily curtain wave in and out. I put my drink down and looked at that picture of me on a horse when I was young.
“Honey, I’m just saying. It’s difficult. When I was your age, you know, I remember feeling so,” she let that hang there. “I guess I felt like everything was narrowing, my future, you know? Before, when I was in college, I thought I could do anything but afterwards I started to get it. The decisions you make now, they’re like doors. You pick one, walk through it and go on into that room and the door shuts behind you and it locks, you can never go back there,” she paused again. She was looking at the curtain wave out and then suck back in, pressing against the screen.
“I sometimes like to imagine my other selves, the ones I chose not to be. I try to picture what they’re doing right now. Like there are worlds and worlds filled with all of the other possibilities, all that we could have been if we had picked different doors or if there had been different doors to choose from in the first place. You know, I make things up.
“I felt like who I was when I was younger, when I was girl, was sort of like a comet,” she had her finger on the lip of her beer bottle. I looked down at my lap. “You’re just whizzing through it, this whole world, your life, and parts of you are just peeling off. You know, you start to lose parts. I never imagined myself like this, when I was younger.
“It’s just difficult, honey, life, and you have to just hold on to what you can as you’re pulled through. You can’t keep everything. You’re just going to have solider through a lot of it. That’s the crust of it. The secret. It’s nothing to get upset over, it’s just life, everyone has to,” She took her hand off the beer bottle. Placed it on my arm.
“Kate, Kate, honey are you crying? Honey, come on. Kate?”
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Then I put my elbow on the table and rested my cheek on my hand. I looked at my mother sideways like that. I let a smile come across my face and then I mouthed, Fine.
“I’m a little over-excited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die?
Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out?”