Sara Oliver Gordus
A creative writing professor once said that he thought I still believed that there was something mystical about the writing process. I needed to let that go, he said – the sense of thinking that writing meant throwing everything into a black box, crossing my fingers and hoping it would come out sparkling. Writing was a skill to be mastered, like welding or sausage-making. It required a thoughtful and consistent process honed over time. I liked this advice – it took a lot of pressure off of me. I didn’t need to pray I’d find a golden ticket each time I opened up Microsoft Word. I just needed to draw confidence from developing my skills, from becoming a better writer. That self-validation (wow, that sounds so self-help), has armed me as I’ve sent my stories out into the literary world, where external validation is hard to come by. I want to think of becoming a “successful” writer as more like a trip through the sausage factory. A grind (I kill me) with a measurable outcome, just as long as I remember to use the right ingredients and techniques. And despite all this mental cheerleading, in quiet moments, I fear that it might be more of a crapshoot. There are probably more talented people out there writing interesting things than there are bookstore shelves to fill or readers to find them. It is entirely possible that I could do everything “right” and still remain unknown. That’s weighty to think about.
I compare the somewhat nebulous path it takes to become a writer with a capital W to the path I would take to move up the ranks of the large publishing house I work for. I’m not saying it would be easy to one day become company president, but if I think that if that were my goal and I failed, at least, in later reflection, I would be able to pinpoint the stage where I reached my limit. The day I hurled a file folder at the CFO, say, or simply just reprioritized by life goals. Wow, that makes it sound awfully depressing– to think that I could look back on my life and know the point where I faltered. It seems much better to stick with the writing, the crapshoot, and keep on hoping, nay believing, that my next piece of work will be better than the previous one.
It’s a tough gig, this writing, no doubt. But it’s a part of me – I need it. Even if I never top a critic’s list, I’ll be content at the end of my days knowing that I was here and I left something behind – a record of having lived a thoughtful life.
Have a Heart
My first moment in the State of New York, I slipped and fell in LaGuardia Airport on the way from the gate to the baggage claim like an idiot, my forty-pound carry-on of books accelerating the descent. Miraculously, two people helped me to my feet and kindly said nothing to amplify my humiliation. But this—my first step? It foreboded doom, and on the sidewalk each day to work, I see it again and again in my head—my knee cap cracking at contact with the urinated pavement, the flail of my borrowed coat a quick flash of beige before the strides of hurryers pave across my back. My lips pressed to cold, flattened gum, I hear the thump of a stack of newspaper upon the shelf that is my rear end. “New York Times Sunday, New York Post,” hawks the woman above my flattened body.
“Have a heart” calls the troll-voiced man collecting donations each day as I leave the deli with my latte I convince myself I pay for by walking everywhere. “Help is on the way” reads the circular button above the office building elevator numbers which I’m assuming would light up if I were really in trouble. “If I were a gay prostitute, that’d be a different matter altogether” said the man in front of me on the sidewalk two nights ago, and I think, no kidding, that would really be something to write about.
Because how can I write this place, this bulb of literary, cultural, urban, American brightness? How dare I feel unique to be dazzled by the energy of it all?
But I do. I do have a heart. And it’s my heart that clenches each time I step outside, squeezing itself dry, again and again drafting that moment on the edge of something—a moment that hovers, without oxygen or sense, birthing stars in my eyes and a flicker of what the depths of things can be—all before the world begins to flow again and I can never be the same. It’s exactly why we jump out of planes or fall in love, or move here. To get back to that place. The place inside our minds that takes our breath away, that permits us to ride upon the wind like space ships or voices. The only help I know to get there, see, is to keep writing.