Opening Old Boxes

Pandora_-_John_William_WaterhouseThe end of year always puts me in the mood to clean. A new year might be an arbitrary marker of time passing, but finishing up a calendar fills me with the desire to say good-bye to some things, to clean the slate and start fresh which is how I ended up in the basement going through boxes taped closed since I packed them in 1999.

In one of the boxes, I found a small thin book that I hadn’t looked at since college—the Winter 1990 issue of Cornell’s literary magazine, Praxis. Despite the years, the cover was instantly recognizable for me and seeing it again gave me a Proustian transportive moment where I was flooded with pride and excitement in just the same way I had been the first time I saw it.

In 1990 I was a sophomore in college and entered the literary magazine’s fiction contest with a story called “Beware of the Very Big Dogs,” a claustrophobic first-person day-in-the-life of a woman who lived with her abusive boyfriend, danced in a cage, and worshipped Billy Holiday. What did I know about any of that? Nothing, but the story won the contest.

When I won, I thought that was the beginning of everything—my life as a writer was going to be one continuous upward trajectory to literary glory. Life always seems like it will move in a straight line when you are 20.

Most of us older than 20 understand that life rarely takes the direct route, and mine certainly didn’t. I spent my time in college writing stories and poetry but when I graduated I didn’t know what to do next. There was no clear pathway to literary success. I was filled with fear and uncertainty for the first time in my life, and I panicked. While I waited tables during the day, I got my graduate school applications together at night. When I began a graduate program in English Literature I put away fiction writing, stopped altogether as if I had shut it up in a box and taped it closed. If I wasn’t going to be a famous writer, I wasn’t going to do it at all.

Why do we take the joyous parts of ourselves, the risky and pleasurable pieces, and put them away in order to be serious and adult? Fiction-writing stayed closed up in that box for more than a decade until a death in my family pushed me to reconsider my choices, and I decided to open that box and start writing again.

I’d love to tell you that once I began, I was filled with joy and a sense of purpose, but I wasn’t. I wanted to write beautiful, subtle portraits of complicated emotional experiences, and instead I was creating clunky over-written scenes that were very good examples of what not to do in fiction. The distance between what I wanted to write and what I was doing felt like, well, like a nuanced metaphor I couldn’t come up with.

I turned to classes to figure out what I was doing and to find some readers who didn’t share my last name. I had to let go of my fantasies of instant glory, of picking up where I had left off, and actually develop some skills. I have learned that fiction-writing isn’t a super power conferred from a fickle muse. It’s a lot more like farming where you just have to put in lots and lots of work everyday to get high quality product. My writing has grown and matured, and so has my relationship to its place in the world. I may not have become the literary wunderkind I thought I was going to be, but the hard work that I’ve done over the last few years to develop my craft and learn how to write might be the pathway to literary success that I was looking for all those years ago. As Stephen King has said, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Now my novel is almost ready to go out in the world and try to find a home, and I’m having the same feelings of fear and uncertainty that I had when I went out into the world myself in 1993. Seeing that literary magazine from 25 years ago and reading my story felt like stepping into a time machine to that moment in my life bursting with potential that I have yet to fulfill, but a new year is coming. The slate is clean, and there is still time to make my mark.


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