March 23—I wake up in the middle of the night coughing (Florida=allergies), and get up to use the bathroom and get a drink of water. When I lie down again, I am struck by a book idea that brings together many of my loves and beliefs about poetry and its power to help people. I cannot stop thinking about this book, how much fun it would be to write, to put together, how amazing it would be if just one person ultimately read it and was helped. I have to write down my ideas, so I grab my phone, mute the ocean waves sound I sleep to, and slowly type a few words in a note I hope will make sense the next morning.
After, I put the ocean back on and fall asleep smiling.
March 24—I meet a former student for dinner, and tell her of course the world needs more words about surviving unobvious and largely untreatable pain, about the possible ways to be healthy in mind as well as body. “Old ideas need to be written in new ways. Everyone hears important truths differently, and how they are written makes all the difference—a quote from Alan Watts may change one person’s life, while someone else is moved by Rilke to respect her life again. Which means we need all the different voices speaking,” I say.
I’m pretty wise, I think as I drive home, but I know I often can’t hear my own words. How I speak to myself and how I speak to students is appallingly different.
March 25—Preparing for a literary conference—packing, selecting poems to read, squaring away my classes—takes up most of the day. The following day I will drive up with friends to Fairhope, Alabama, 8 hours in the car, and when we arrive I know phone reception will be spotty at best, internet nonexistent. March 26 is my mother’s birthday, though she has been gone seven years. I pull out some old photos of her, scan them, write up a short note, and post on social media. It feels like writing. Are my posts sometimes mini-essays? And if so, is that a good or a bad thing for my career, for me as a writer?
Before bed I get a rejection from a literary magazine—it is for an essay that bares me, perhaps too much. I had only sent it to the one place, uncertain about its quality but wanting it to be read. I stay up too late and fall into bed exhausted.
March 26—The older I get, the more difficult I find hours in the car. We talk on the way up, but to combat the low-level misery of the drive I constantly check email on my phone. Perhaps I’ll get an acceptance. The thought of that sort of good news becomes addictive. I become convinced that, if I can only get that acceptance email, I will feel glorious. I crave that affirmation more than chocolate cake or Xanax. The battery on my phone gets dangerously low, but I can’t stop checking.
I think about how I want to move to Tennessee to be with my love, and I think about changing my job in order to do so—giving up teaching, because you can’t choose where you live if you’re a college teacher—and I think about the relief that might come with having a job where no one cared whether my poems or essays had any literary merit at all.
March 27—I do my reading at the literary conference. It’s the middle of the day and I don’t know the other two poets I’m reading with, but I feel lucky that we have about 10 people in the audience. (It’s a very small conference, friends.) I feel privileged to hear the poems of these talented people, and when it’s my turn I start out with a few words about the community we need as writers. “Comparison is one of the deaths of happiness,” I say. “So resist that urge to compare yourself to the other writers here, and remember why you started writing in the first place. That still matters, no matter how much or how little you publish. Your writing matters.” I read my poems, and I’m pretty happy with how they go, and the one that was a big emotional risk gets laughs and sympathy.
My love drives down from Tennessee for the weekend and we sit at the table having tea before bed and I tell him I’m afraid to try a new 9-5 job because I worry that I won’t have time to do my own writing. I’m not really a success in my chosen career—20+ years of having my MFA and never a tenure track job—but I do have some books I want to write still. He is sympathetic, understanding. He listens and doesn’t get upset, doesn’t problem-solve or minimize my concerns. And that makes me want to quit my job to be with him even more.
March 28—The second day of the conference is sweet with community. Some graduate students I know present brilliantly on literary comics (though they would take issue with that genre/wording); and another reads her work with poise and charisma; and I’m on an editor’s panel where people say smart things and I remind the audience that we editors need their work, that no matter what complaints they hear or imagine editors having they need to remember that magazines don’t exist without writers; and a friend reads a gorgeous essay that still chokes him up and I love that sort of vulnerability in a writer.
My love takes me to see the sunset over the Gulf and then to dinner and we fall asleep trying not to think of how the next morning we will part again for another three long weeks.
March 29—The endless drive back to Tampa from Fairhope. Conversation with writer friends swirls around books and authors, most of whom I have not read, as well as jobs and writing and publishing and editing and promoting. I check my email, but listlessly, not expecting or even hoping for any news from a magazine considering my work.
I mentally try on different jobs, probe my skills and find them severely lacking. I think with all the words out there, all the writers that other people talk about with excitement in their voices, who needs mine? What does it actually matter, what I do, whether or not I write?
I become numb with exhaustion; the drive spools out, an 8 hour long movie I cannot stop watching. I decide: it doesn’t matter whether I write. It doesn’t matter what I do for a living. If I left this job I probably would get one that made even less, and that’s depressing considering I always thought other jobs might be much less fulfilling than teaching but at least they’d pay a lot more.
I decide that’s it, I really should give up this writing thing before my trying becomes even more ridiculous and pathetic. I decide people only ever say nice things about my writing because they think I’m a nice person, because they want to be kind to me.
And as I can’t keep my self-worth afloat, as the water swirls and the fragile little ship rides the whirlpool towards the drain and the sewers beyond, for some damned unfathomable reason I sit down to write this little diary of a writer’s week. And seeing the events of the past few days I wonder why I can’t speak to myself the way I speak to my students. Why am I so utterly certain that other people’s words matter and equally certain that mine don’t?
I really, truly don’t know the answer to that. Is it because I am a woman, worth just 78% of a man in this society’s value system? Is it because I’m a writer, and all of us are plagued, besieged, persecuted by doubt? Is it because we are living in the America of the disappearing middle class, of the near-certainty that most of us will do worse than our parents financially rather than better? Is it because all of humanity is up to our necks in the degradation of our planet and the truly vital jobs—the ones that just might save us—have to do with science anyway, which makes word-crafting feel superfluous?
It is March 29th for nine more minutes. My two dogs sleep on the couch, content because I am home. They know what I always, always forget: this is all. This moment.
It is time for bed.