Back in 2013 when it first came out, I went with my husband Alby and our friends Jeff, Rose, and Ron to see Twenty Feet from Stardom at Tampa Theatre. Two things upset me deeply. First, my heart broke for the backup singers. Talented, ambitious, likable women sacrificed family, comfort, and security to achieve their dreams and failed, not because they lacked the talent, but because they had signed a lesser contract only a day before the dream offer came, because they pushed when they should’ve pulled, because they pulled when they should’ve pushed, because they didn’t have quiet enough drive to make them heartless, because the ego they needed for the footlights was distasteful to them, because they misunderstood a remark. In the film, Sting calls the business a “crap shoot.”
Second, my heart broke for myself, not because I was failing, but because I was lonely. The backup singers had each other. Writers work in solitude. To write, we escape to the garret of our own minds at a kitchen table, on a train, at the end of a dark bar on a sunny afternoon. We need hours daily unplugged from the Internet, disconnected from the cell phone, hiding where we can’t be found. We aren’t alone, of course, not exactly. We’re buoyed by the company of mental ghosts, characters imagined or remembered. But as we work, no one else’s smile meets the optic nerve. No one else’s voice strikes the tympanic membrane. No one else’s scent excites the olfactory bulb. No one else’s touch triggers pressure receptors in the skin. When we get that email announcing we won a literary award or that phone call from an editor, no one else, not even a spouse, not even a close writer friend, knows the sensory-deprived hours we’ve spent tunneling below the busy feet of the world, digging blind one direction, turning back, collapsing entire caves of our own making right down upon ourselves, coming up for air only to bewilder ourselves and panic that the secret city we built in our brains might forever go unexplored and unknown.
As I walked out of Tampa Theatre and back into my life, I said to my husband Alby and our friends, “We’ve all heard of posthumously-famous writers who died in obscurity, Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, Zora Neale Hurston, but think of the millions more who must write and perish and no one ever sees their work. You know what? This is how it happens.” I pointed to my chest. “I’m living it right now.”
“So what if you die in obscurity?” Jeff threw an arm over my shoulder. “We’re obscurity, and we love you.”
“The odds of publication are worse than winning the Powerball, and I have the nerve to scoff at lottery tickets.” I ducked from under Jeff’s arm. “I mean, I dropped to half-time to write full-time. How many people quit work to play the lottery?”
“Writing is a job,” Rose said. Although she works full-time and co-owns her own business, she’s also a passionate artist.
“It’s not a job if you don’t get paid,” my engineer husband said.
“Yes, it is,” Ron said. “It’s not a job if you can’t file bankruptcy.”
“For the record,” I said, stepping in front of them and walking backwards, “Alby agreed to this deal before he married me.” In the parking lot, I drifted away from the banter. Having seen those backup singers with their arms around each other singing into the same microphone, I hadn’t realized how alone I was. I trotted back to my friends. “You guys. Writing a book is lonely, expensive, and stupid. It’s like using a machete to hack a path while blindfolded with no destination through a brambly, mosquito- and snake-infested jungle alone in your underwear without even a granola bar and a Gatorade.”
Jeff said, “Why, you just described my prom date.”
“You’re forging a path you don’t know anyone else will ever walk,” I said, “and you’re probably going to perish anyway.”
We hugged our good-byes, and I rode home, staring out at the lights across Old Tampa Bay with Alby’s hand resting on my thigh. As close as I am to friends and family, no one else had spent weeks preparing two proposals and sample chapters for my next dog book, Borderland, and my essay collection, The Naked Australian and Other First Dates. No one else sent the manuscripts to my old agent and waited month after passing month as the unspoken don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you got louder and louder until the only thing to do was to get a red pen and write in my record of submissions, “Effectively told me to fuck off.” No one else had a stake in whether the conformation breeder would call me back for an interview. No one else had given up half her paycheck to devote more time to rereading Of Wolves and Men and The Lost History of the Canine Race. I kept seeing how the singers on camera sat relaxed, shoulder to shoulder. During the interviews, they nodded as each other’s words rang true to a shared experience. One by one, they had made peace with their lots, sustained as they were by the comfort that even if fame and wealth never came their way, they went on making their art together. They leaned into microphones and took flight on the updraft of their shared song, exhilarated and exhilarating.
That night, I dreamed a new agent signed me for my book about dogs. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone anymore. The gale of relief almost woke me, but I willed myself to tack into the dream vector. The agent, a short, kindly, jovial man in dress pants, a rumpled white button-down shirt, and spectacles, was escorting my dog Mick and me through ropes and curtains and small crowds of people waiting and smiling at me, not because I was a famous dog writer, but because I was with Mick. Mick’s long, dense, shining black coat swayed with his trot. He grinned up at face after smiling face, his eyes laughing wide and bright, his bright pink happy tongue lolling. Write about me, he seemed to say. Just keep writing about me.
* * *
Alby said, “I’ve never seen you like this.”
I was sprawled wet-faced and sniffling across the dining room table. I said, “I’m grieving.”
I buried my face in my arms. “I’m letting go of my writer-self.”
Under the table, Mick tapped my knee with his claw. “Do tricks,” he was saying. “Do tricks. Do tricks.”
Alby clattered a set of screwdrivers on the kitchen counter. He was tinkering with our espresso machine. Unlike my tinkering, his improved our lives. “How long are you going to be like this?”
“Two or three months.” I got up to blow my nose. At least, that’s about how long I sobbed when one of my dogs died. It’s how long I wept when my daughter when off to college.
On the kitchen counter, the espresso machine had been reduced a pile of black plastic and metal rubble.
Mick brought me a tennis ball and bounced it.
How could I explain to Alby that, having let go of the insane imperative to write, I was actually at peace for the first time in thirty years? These weren’t just tears of sorrow, but of relief.
Mick sat between us and begged. He spun one direction. He spun the other. He lay down to roll over, and halfway through, changed his mind and tried beg again, and knocked himself over twisting like a fish on a line.
“I’ll get better.” I stood with my legs apart, and Mick ran a figure-eight around them. I gave him a treat. “In three months, I’ll have transformed into someone sane and simple.”
Alby guffawed. “That’s not what I signed up for.”
“It must be nice to be an engineer.” I kissed him.
Mick whacked my leg with his tug rope and yapped. I could still be Mick’s partner in the absurdly sweet work of trick-dog training. Alby twisted a magnifying monocle into his eye socket and scrutinized the detritus of his luxury coffee appliance. I snapped my treat pouch around my waist and announced that I was going outside to train the dog.
After Mick and I worked on “Hup!” “Bang!” and “Stay,” I decided do something practical too. I’d bake rusks. As a South African, Alby missed those twice-baked buttermilk biscuits. For some of us, baking makes it all better. Well, not really, but at least I’d get to pound and knead the dough and make the house smell good.
I’d just put the rusks in for their first bake at 380 degrees, when the phone rang. My friend Nick DiChario had read an email I’d sent, which basically said, in calm, reasonable, not-at-all dramatic terms, “Good-bye cruel writing world.” He was laughing. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.” He told me that once or twice in his life, he, too, grieved and gave up writing. “Never lasts.”
“This is different.”
“It always is.”
We talked about work, friends we had in common, Nick’s love life, my dog life, and then he said, “Lisa, I’m your friend whether you’re a writer or not. You call me any time.”
“Thanks, Nick. I’m one lucky bitch.”
We said our good-byes, and right before the line went dead, I heard him shout real fast:
“You’re always gonna be a writer bye!” and cackle.