Giving up has been on my mind a lot over the last couple weeks…from the small giving up’s that mean another day goes by without writing to the large giving up’s that change the course of our lives…giving up that results from moments of despair, giving up as a conscious choice, giving up as resignation, and giving up as freedom….
I reached a point almost ten years ago where I almost gave up on writing. Everywhere I turned (workshop, writing group, journals, etc.), it seemed my short stories only met with incomprehension (and sometimes outright antagonism). I was beyond tired of trying to hold onto my vision of the work. And though giving up writing would have been like ripping off all my skin, I was ready to do it one morning. I don’t remember the exact details of my brother’s visit, but he dropped by that day. We talked, and somehow he ended up with a draft of my llorona story. He went to read it somewhere else in the house. I stayed in my room, still contemplating what amounted to the suicide of my writer-self.
I will never forget the look on his face when he came back. Will never forget how I felt in that instant. Impossible to describe the look in his eyes, but I knew that he’d understood. He got it. And I felt as if I could breathe again. In that moment, he pulled me up out of my despair. And in the years that have followed, he’s been my best reader, my most challenging and understanding editor.
Towards the end of 2009, I was drowning in a sense of futility. Years and years of submitting work, years of rejections with a few acceptances here and there, years of sending out manuscripts, years of applying for grants and fellowships—all while dealing with life, taking care of family, losing my mother, working multiple jobs, and dealing with my own health crises—years and years of trying without seeming to get any closer to my dream of publishing a whole shelf of books with my name on the spine…or my dream of living a ‘writer’s life.’
I’m not sure how things would have gone if I hadn’t had a book manuscript accepted for publication on the last day of 2009. But it was, and again, I got pulled up and things changed.
The publication of furia, however, only came about because I’d finally given up on my first poetry manuscript. I’d worked on it for nine years, but it wasn’t until I gave up on it that I was able to put together the manuscript that became furia.
I wouldn’t trade what furia is for anything. It’s my best possible first book. It’s everything I meant to say as best I could say it. I see it every day. I keep it at my desk at my bread and butter job to remind me where my real focus lies. The book is beautiful—as is the cover my brother painted for it. And I had a great experience with the press that published it. But furia wouldn’t have happened without my giving up on the first manuscript.
But how do you really know when it’s time to give up a manuscript? When do you hold onto your vision of something for years or decades, in the face of all opposition (opposition meaning rejection, meaning virulent critique, meaning blank incomprehension, meaning lukewarm-at-best responses)?
And when do you say, that’s it. I can’t do this anymore. Maybe it’s not the right time. Maybe I have to scrap everything I have and start over again. Maybe it’s impossible to start all over again. How do you say, I took a wrong turn…I destroyed my characters…I’ve burnt my heart out on this…and…I…just…can’t…do..this…anymore—whatever it is that this may be.
And sometimes it’s not the writing projects that it may be time to give up on…sometimes it’s the things that keep us from the writing…whether it’s a bread and butter job that isn’t conducive to writing, a commitment that takes an inordinate amount of creative energy…any other non-writing project or relationship that drains more than it gives back…those cases you can often recognize by how free you feel after giving them up…
But it’s another kind of giving up that’s been on my mind lately…because yes, I dream of fame and fortune….not solely because it would make my ego happy to stuff my bio w/ awards and my wallet with prize monies…but mainly because of what fame and fortune can bring: time and opportunities…
I would like time. Time to write. Time to think. Time to breathe. Time to live. Mostly, my days pass in a blur of juggling multiple jobs and household errands and doctor’s appointments, etc. etc.
And fame begets opportunity—to travel, to read, to interact with readers, to concentrate on new work… Some people dream of the MacArthur, a Pulitzer, the Nobel…travelling around the world…and a bank account that never runs dry. I have to admit, that sounds like fun…but mostly, I’d like a little house with a large sunroom. I’d like to not ever have to worry about the light bill. I’d like to write myself clear out of words. I’d like the decades of writing I imagine it would take me to do that.
Not sometimes, but always, I feel like a poet/writer on the periphery. I know so few writers outside of academia who have been able to hold on to their writing…who have published…who still strive to develop as writers…and even without an MFA from an elitist institution, I seem to have picked up a value system regarding publications and awards…I see bits and pieces of the conflicts and competitions driving so many writers…
But what is all of that for? What does writing mean if winning is the focus? What does writing mean if the prizes and the monies don’t happen? What does writing mean if you count book sales by the handfuls rather than the hundreds or thousands (much less millions)? What if that dreamt-of writing life never comes? Why do we really write? Why do I really write?
And there are other questions—how do we sustain ourselves if this is what the writing life is going to look like for the next decade or two or four: squeezed between multiple commitments, always fighting for time, always strategizing to keep enough creative energy, lines of poetry and bits of dialogue mixed with torturously-detailed budgets and utility bills…?
What does the writing mean that it can continue in the midst of everything and without recognition? In the end, is the desire and the need to find the those exact words and tell those stories that we must tell stronger than all the things we want?
Is this the place, the time, for giving up the need for recognition so that we can arrive at a new place…not a despairing place— but perhaps a freer place?
I know where my writing comes from. I know what writing has been to my life. And at the end (and beginning) of everything, all of that ‘noise’ falls away. I came here to write.
…please feel free to weigh in, dear readers…where and what have you given up? what are you intent on giving up? did giving up bring pain or did it bring freedom?