What Will You Give Up To Write?

It’s a great question to ask yourself. What will you give up? What will you sacrifice? Are you hungry enough? Hungry enough to be a writer?

It’s a question we’re asked in the MFA program. Are we hungry enough? Do we care enough? There’s a spark, a flame in us, there has to be. We all moved to Montpelier for this graduate school, for the chance to study in a Writing and Publishing MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. But can we maintain it? Keep going? We’re adults here, it’s up to us. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing. It’s as simple as that. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing.

Literary citizenship comes up to, how we interact within the writing community. At clown school, I remember being reminded that it was more important to be consistent, to show up than it was to be a genius. If we were difficult, if we just took without giving back, our reputation took us down regardless of what we created.

I see it here too. Who cares and is generous with the other students. Who goes out of their way to help, give thoughtful feedback when asked, in short, who shows up for others. Seeing how we are (mostly) being there for each other is incredible, we’re in this together. We all want to become better writers. We need each other. We learn from each other. This community is ours for the rest of our writing lives. It’s important.

Yet, the truth is we are alone. No one makes me get up early to write. No one demands me that I edit and revise my prose. No one stands in the corner, tut-tutting when I stare out the window or look at Facebook or drift off.

No one but me. I’m here. I moved 2400 miles. My friends and family are far away. I’m here at my desk. It’s eleven on a Sunday morning and I’ve written a new sketch/ prose poem, revised three others, edited a book review, and started editing a travel essay someone has sent for publication on Wanderlust. I might go for a walk again soon but not yet, I’m caught up in the daily focus of writing. Reading is later in the day, not yet, not now, I’ll get to that later on.

So what did I give up to be here? To live as I have for years? Especially for the last 18 months with no income but what comes from writing and editing. It was a good question from Sean Prentiss, a good lecture from Julianna Baggott. It’s lingered in me this week. In no particular order, this is a list of what I’ve given up, so far.

  • new clothes
  • routines
  • netflix
  • new music
  • new books
  • boots that fit properly
  • organic food
  • going out to restaurants
  • furniture
  • a new car
  • going to movies
  • heating
  • home upgrades
  • hairstyles
  • motels and hotels
  • a full pantry
  • my home in Bromsgrove
  • my home in Madrid
  • family
  • friends
  • lovers
  • kids
  • and boredom

You see, it’s time to live up to my potential. I’m hungry. I want to claim my place in the writers’ community. Let me know how I can help. I’ll be there. One way or another, I want to give back. I am here. I’m not giving up, not now.

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Call For Submissions

 

Wanderlust Journal is looking for travel narratives and stories from the road, all those explorations in landscape and environment.  Wanderlust Journal  has an ongoing curiosity into how travel changes us, the reasons we leave home, and what we experience. We’re looking for new voices and emerging writers to publish. Why? There is a shortage of quality places focused on these travel essays.

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Do you have something to say? Well written and evocative of something more than just a personal experience that takes the reader to see the world in new ways? We’d love to hear you.

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Stay Hungry. Stay Human.

GRAB LIFE.

Grab your beloveds and tell them. Go after your dreams. Be hungry. Act on your hopes, on your ideals, stop making the same bloody excuses. This is it. This is your life. Please grab it. Be hungry. Stay awake. There are no guarantees, we don’t know how long we have. We don’t know what our friends and loves are going through. We don’t know when our own clocks will go silent. GRAB YOUR LIFE and claim it. Every fucking day.
Too many friends have lost people the last few weeks. Four people in my world died. So please stop fucking around. This is it. This is your life. Stay hungry. Stay human. Unless you’re a dog, then just be a dog. Running full out.

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What am I doing here?

Cold damp air washed over me, doused the happy day I’d had, that inspiration from the classes attended. The dogs ran it to the kitchen, Harold howling for his dinner, his tail thumped on the fake wooden floor, Rosie checked out the bucket. Stevie wound in and out of legs. Within ten minutes, all ran back outside into the rain. Harold sat in the front seat. Stevie sat underneath the front bumper. And Rosie? Rosie hunched on the grass in the drizzle before squeezing under the campervan. They hate it in here.

What am I doing here? I grabbed Stevie, needing to cuddle his fluffy belly. He scratched me, claw stuck in my left cheek.

What am I doing here?

Quitting isn’t an option, isn’t it? When is it time to give up? Say enough is enough and walk away? The Santa Fe speak for this persistence is that it’s meant to be, you deserve this (as long as it’s good and if not, then this phrase is quietly ignored), and the inane something better will come along and don’t ever say this to me – god wills it. The idea is that someone or something godlike has determined what will and won’t happen. A notion that confuses me, well – it pisses me off actually. Lame. Suitable for good times and not so surprisingly forgotten in the bad. Who’d say, you deserve this when you lose home, job, or worse, a parent? My parents are both dead, sorry to be blunt, though and so right now it’s just home and job. Without a job, I can’t get a home. Without a home, I can’t get a job. Funny that. Catch 22, or in my case 22 1/2:  the van, I like living in this van of mine, don’t I? But I can’t leave the pups and Stevie inside all day while working for another. Can I?

I scroll through Craigslist looking for work, for pet-friendly homes, anything but this, a dark little dungeon that is mine for another ten days. The dogs are in the camper, Harold on the passenger’s seat, Rosie on the bed in the back. Stevie hides underneath. I’m sitting on a camp stool under the eaves of the garage, staying out of the rain as being inside the basement apartment wets me down to a soggy pile of rotten leaves. Even the paperwork on the table in there curls in the damp air. The smoke alarm beeps every few minutes, the moist air short-circuting the wiring inside, well, it did until I tore it off the ceiling, ripped out the wires and threw the fucking thing into the creek downhill.

Walking along a riverside dirt track outside of Montpelier is the one time the dogs play. The one place Harold will shit. He holds it in, constipated by these changes in our life. He’s not happy. The road is empty, absolutely no-one there, a full river rushes by, and Harold and Rosie run into the trees, eat grass, poop, eat more grass and speed off ahead. Strolling along under the dense leafy greenery that suffocates me, the rain trickles down. Oh, it’s pretty, it is. The understory is chocked full of grass, shrubs, flowers, and who knows what they’re all called, I don’t care. Not really. It’s too much, too green, too dense. I crave the open space of mountains or meadows.

Mad Dog River valley appeals, just as Anne from the college had guessed. It’s wide open, with fields and flushed muddy banks deep in the flash floods from a month of rain. This rain that doesn’t stop, it drizzles and storms in both the afternoons and mornings. Mid-day, when I’m here, driving around the lanes, the sun shines and so do I. We stop in Middlesex first, leaving fliers at the cafe looking for a home, and then back onto Hwy 100B, along another smaller river and past different styles of wood-sided houses with small yards. I take note of rental signs and for sale. In Moretown, again, I stop at the General Store, drop off a flier, search for others. Nothing pops. I drive on. We stop at a picnic area under some trees, dogs run to drink from the river. The views along this valley are wide and my breath loosens. My anxiety loosens its hold and so we walk around the next town along, Waitsfield. It’s a tad too far for a commute to college and (hopefully) work. A sandwich, a soda, and then time to drive again. The afternoon was sweet, the valley open and views expansive.

College inspires me. Invited to drop in and out of lectures, I’ve found academics and writers who speak to me, remind me that yes, I’m a writer, there’s nothing else. How do I align my interior life as a writer with a lifetime of writing? How do I make this into a professional career? I’m doing my best but this, the community of writers and poets, they can help. They’re teaching me of all that I know and don’t. How else will I find my way into the publishing world and to become a better writer both? Ada Limon talks of how she found a balance as a poet and editor/copy-writer, and to mix the introvert and social sides of herself. Flexibility was a goal of hers, workwise, one that not just appeals but is necessary for me, and her lecture on personal process, making it in the world by knowing when to be the artist writer self and when she needs to step out of that, to be professional, she can do that, knowing it’s temporary yet needed.

My toes are damp. The foundation seeps and puddles in the kitchen. With a towel to two, I sop up the worst next to the fridge and stare out the highest little windows as the rain keeps coming down.  The dogs spread the dirt and mud from puddles inside, outside, onto my bedding, into the garage and into the camper van. Dog hair, those shedding beasts of mine, run through a downpour, shake it off inside the dungeon, and jump onto my bed again. Stevie steps across the table, my papers, and I admire the little paw-prints, so perfectly formed. Thunder crashes out. Lights go out. Electricity down. Nighttime. Bedtime. It’s seven o’clock. Oh, why not, it’s not like I have anything to do.

When does it become time to stop? To walk away? How do we know? Competitive I am not. Does that mean I’m a quitter? Do I give up too easily? Those friends who decided to believe another with a reputation for lying instead of me, the most bluntly honest one? What did I do? I walked away, not going to waste my time trying to remind them of the value of reputation: if they didn’t believe me why should I make them? So, no, perhaps that was giving up too early? I don’t know. I’m okay with it, in that case. This though is different. I want this. I want to be here. It’s just…

It’s just that it’s not easy. Moving across 2100 miles to a town where I have no back-up, friends, or sense of community.  The home rental fell through. I found another, paid, moved in a few things and then the landlady changed her mind. The job that’s meant to start tomorrow, there’s a technical hitch and they can’t take me on for a few months. I’ve sent out resumes, stopped in at so many local businesses, I’m tired of selling myself, or trying to. No leads. And I find it’s more lonely to be here in a town than it is to be in the mountains alone. Loneliness/ alone, they are such opposites but easily confused.

A night in Maine, the fire crackled and dogs ran free. The van doors were propped open and Stevie sat in the stoop. My laptop sat on the wooden table with notebooks, pens, papers, reviews and phone. The cookstove took over the other end of the table and a pot of soup bubbled away. The birds cackled and ravens taunted Stevie as he climbed a pine tree behind us. The 35 acre lake reflected back a growing cover of stormy clouds. Finally I could breathe deeply. With such dense forests, there was no shortage of firewood and I made the most of it. Glorious. Absolutely glorious. The words pour out and remind me that writing is why I’m here in Vermont. Tonight I’m inspired by both journey and conversations had with random people as I drove around Maine. Life is good.

Give it a chance I tell myself. I know why I’m here, trying to find a home and work in Vermont so that I can spend three years on a Writing and Publishing MFA. How often does such an offer come up? Rarely. One that is exactly what I want and need as a writer on the edge of finding herself? I’m here for all the right reasons.

What would happen if I walked away? I’d regret this, this lost opportunity to find a community, to step into a world of experienced and published writers that inspire me. I’d miss the possibilities within reach. I can see them, touch their words, and listen to their voices as they talk of how they got to this point. I see myself one day, giving such a lecture as Ada’s, talking of my process and path, with confidence and ease talking to a room full of strangers, making them laugh and hopefully inspiring them to keep going, keep writing and to trust themselves. I see myself talking of agents and publications. Process and challenges. It’s clear to me. The goal. I’m here for the right reasons. I am.
I open the door to the dungeon. A wave of cold damp air hits me, the dogs run back to the van, Stevie scratches me. Bleeding, I break down again, crying into fists, sitting on the stupidly soft mattress on this shitty little single bed in this fucking bunker. Why am I here? What am I doing here? I don’t know. It’s time to sleep, I can’t deal, unable to cook a decent meal, read or write. Fuck it. It’s seven thirty.

Taking Dad To Guatemala in 2005

This is a short piece I wrote years ago but since it’s Father’s Day, I thought I’d share it. I miss him. I miss Mum. Gran. Nan. Viv. My family. Days like this, the pre-made duty filled days are hell on me. Oh well, right? Carry on. Carry on. I am British after all. 

LAST DAYS

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

She had found herself telling complete strangers in Antigua, that colonial city where she waited for the trip back to England. In the clothes shop on Sixth avenue, to the west of the central park, she looked through racks of women’s’ trousers and blouses.

“These aren’t the things I know how to buy,’ she was muttering to herself when the lady offered to help. They spoke in Spanish with Louise describing the need for black, for baggy yet formal if possible.

“My dad died.”

The silence though inevitable was not awkward but natural, as the lady looked at Louise and touched her briefly on the shoulder. She understood. Louise said nothing else as the wave of sudden belief shredded the calm she hidden within. Tears came fast, and she took refuge in the dressing room.

Her dad had lived vicariously through her over the last few years. He had researched the places she expressed an interest in visiting, sending long emails full of statistics and anecdotes of the social, political and economic history she would encounter there. Then he sent poems in Spanish as she arrived in Central America, clippings from the Guatemalan national newspapers about the children’s’ plight and poverty. And she wrote weekly of the families she’d talked to, the kids she’d befriended, putting individual names and faces to the facts he would discover for them both.

Antigua is the centre of tourism and Spanish language schools in Guatemala. Louise had learnt a weeks’ worth of grammar before leaving to stay at a smaller village on Lake Atitlan, a few hours away. To be honest, her dad had suggested at least three weeks of school, but Louise was never the scholar her dad is, was…On the Friday at the end of her first week in classes in over fifteen years, her mind crept forward into a game of table tennis, counting and losing over and over to Jose, the teacher.

Antigua is a beautiful city, and when they wrote to each other he mentioned the architecture of the twelfth century, and asked after the three volcanoes surrounding the town of forty thousand. Louise though had found the shoeshine boys and homeless Mayan girls to chat to, juggle with, and play chase around the grassy plazas where tourists and locals alike spent their afternoons. Architecture was not her focus.

Louise had arrived back to Antigua reluctantly drawn from the safe little haven of San Marcos on the lake, stunned and alone. Her dad had died suddenly, unexpectedly. And now she had to fly home, to be there, with her mum, with her brother and his family, see the cousins and aunts and uncles. Her dad had been friend to all, the funny intelligent and compassionate friend they turned to with questions. He fed them with stories and facts and good advice but rarely an easy answer. The thought that he had gone, died, left forever was inescapable yet lingered distant. Numb she sat on the rooftop of Casa Leon’s hostel. Rather out of character she smoked, staring out over the cafes, the narrow cobbled streets, the terracotta plastered adobe homes and private courtyards. Under her unfocused gaze life carried on. Stoned, she still had no appetite beyond memories of Sunday lunches with the family, a ritual she’d hated at the time.

Louise sat alone, in a distant city remembering her brother crying over the phone, telling her that their dad had died in his sleep. A week before. Her knees had given way; she fell to the floor at Stacy’s home, clutching the phone to her ear, not quite knowing what was happening. Mike told her again and again. Then he cried that she was alone without family to hold her, help her. But Stacy stood close, ready for Louise to turn to her, there for her. The baby had been whisked away by Catarina. Pedro had taken off to care for the store. Stacy waited for Louise.

She was not alone, not quite.

On the rooftop, in Antigua she was utterly alone, more than she had ever realised. Daddy’s little girl. The smoke dwindled as she forgot what she was doing, the thoughts of the last letter he’d sent her, about her publishing an article for the first time. His pride and encouragement meant everything to her, particularly today.

Reluctantly yet glad to have another distraction, she took a yellow woven shoulder bag and walked towards the market by the bus station. The streets were busy, well it was a Saturday, and she bumped into an American couple she knew from Panajachel village, at the lake. A quick chat, nothing said of note, Louise didn’t want to tell them, avoided their sympathy unlike at the travel agents earlier, or at the bank, or on the bus with Shane, she had told random people all day until just then. So Louise smiled, made some joke or other and then left to hide in the anonymity of the crowded market.

Tall and fair-haired could she ever be anonymous though? Breathing in the chaos, colours and comforts of this Guatemalan market, Louise found how much she was at home here after four months. She was no longer intimidated by the sensory overload nor frustrated by the languages. The men wore western clothes, trousers and tee shirts, stood and talked to the other vendors. The Mayan women wore traditional dresses of hand-made fabric, all brightly coloured with the designs of their villages. They were normally a bit gruff with the tourists but for once saw something in Louise, and so unusually they reached out to her often, talked as to a regular customer, and gave free extras of avocadoes and bananas. Louise walked, talked, and acted as if nothing had changed. But from now on her life would be defined by this moment. These days alone then the weeks of funeral and mourning with the family in England.

She bought a few gifts for the nieces and nephews from the crafts vendors inside the hall, multi-coloured bracelets and little bags. For her mum it was a different matter.

What do you by someone who just lost their best friend of forty years?

Walking back through the central park Louise sat on a bench, watching sprawling colourful families enjoy the afternoon warmth of springtime. Above her, a cherry blossom tree swung heavy branches saturating the air with memories of their farmhouse in Worcestershire. Those were the times when her mum’s bum would stick out of the overgrown lilac shrubs as she weeded, and dad would always hum to himself as he trimmed the privet hedge near by. She’d hated it at the time.

“Laundry. I must not forget the damn laundry.” She put the book down. It was boring anyway, simply a result of the last minute grabbing of something in English from Stacy’s house on the way out. On the way to catch the boat, to get to the bank, to pay for a ticket, to catch the bus, to get to the city, to buy the ticket, to wait another day, to catch a shuttle bus, to get to the airport, to fly to Dallas, to fly to London, to meet her big brother, and finally to drive home.

Home.

Through the peeling peach plaster of the hotel room Louise listened to an English couple discuss their wedding.

“It’s not a loan, we’ll tell him, it’s a gift because we can’t get married without him, right? Whenever he can, he’s to get a flight to meet us in Honduras, right?” His voice annoyed her, too childish and whiney for a grown man, she thought irritably. Do all British men sound so young? She didn’t remember. It had been twelve years since last living there, and memory was patchy about anything beyond her dad, her mum, and big brother. Every second hit her with a new picture of one day or another when they’d sat around the kitchen table, drinking wine and telling each other stories to make them laugh.

That night in bed when sleep didn’t find her, Louise craved a child. A boy. To call him Tony after her dad. Her body ached with the need for a child of her own. But life had taken her in another direction and there would be no son to remind her of her dad, to fill that void, that desire. She thought of all the kids in her life that light up when they see her. Marley. Freya. Dasen. Freddy. Maria. Thomas. Emily.

“Well, at least I have my little friends,” she said to herself and clutched her old teddy bear.

Time dragged. Two days to wait in an anonymous city, waiting to go home, where she would really feel her dad’s absence from the house, the silences he filled with stories and laughing. Louise packed and unpacked and packed again. Non-stop she fiddled, looked for something, then forgot what in particular, then replaced it all in the green small back pack on the other bed, empty and unused by either friend or lover. Louise wiped the table over and over; her fingers never stopped dancing on the bed. Shoulders tensed and juddered of their own will just as they had after that terrible phone call, when Louise had turned to Stacy and lowered her head sobbing.

During the evening promenade, the orchestra pulled together the wandering tourists and locals and filled the park with rows of wooden seats. Louise found herself drawn in, and ended up sitting next to an old couple and their grandsons.

‘Dolor con suenos de alegria’ means pain with dreams of happiness.

The irony of the musical choice was not lost on her, and she cried again, tired of crying but unable to stop. She listened and cried gentle tears, admiring the stonework of the sixteenth century; the architecture of Spanish colonial times, the arches and pillars, and the fountains reminded her of the family holidays in northern Spain. Age six and learning to swim in Aranda. Eating fresh sardines grilled over the fire in Santander. The huge waves mum dragged her and Mike into squealing with delight.   On Saturday nights, both in Spain and Guatemala people walk and greet each other, sharing ice creams with little children, couples go courting and the shoeshine boys earn whatever they can. Louise stopped one lad to polish her leather boots for the funeral. His hands were blackened and his own shoes were laceless, but his grin reached his eyes as they talked about their families.

Later that night Louise looked around the worn out room, thankful to be going home. To the town she grew up in, to those cousins who tease her. To the uncles and aunts. Family suddenly made sense to her, after all these years apart, she knew she needed them, now more than ever. And they needed her, wanted her to come back, back home.

“I took my dad to Central America. Now he is taking me home.”

…It was time for Louise to go home.

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

 

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