This post is my participation in the writing contest “You Are Enough: Your Calling Your Story” hosted by Positive Writer.
“This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.” -from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
Must I write? How else to explain my frantic scribbling on a legal pad as I sat next to my husband’s hospital bed while he slept?
“I don’t know how you do that,” he said, eyes suddenly open. Ashamed, I stopped writing mid-sentence. What kind of wife writes while her husband lay recovering from heart stent surgery?
“I’m sorry, I was working on my column that’s due tomorrow. I can work on it later.” I was shoving the pad into a tote bag when his hand on my arm stopped me.
“No. I meant I don’t know how you can write like that; filling pages with words so effortlessly. You have such talent.”
“It’s what I do. I write.” He nodded. It spoke volumes of my husband that he could even begin to understand the pull of the pen when few non-writers do.
Though I’d wanted to be a writer since childhood, it wasn’t until I’d given birth to my fourth child and abandoned the pursuit of a master’s degree that I attempted writing for publication. In the ensuing years I gave birth to four more children and began homeschooling. As an outlet for my creative energy, I turned to my childhood pleasure of putting pen to paper, maintaining a semblance of self amid the selfless act of intense mothering.
For the next twenty-five years I honed the craft, working it around mothering; getting up before sunrise every morning to squeeze in an hour of wordplay. When an infant fell asleep in the car, I’d pull over to the curb and scrawl in a notebook I carried in my purse. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet and compose while toddlers splashed in the bathtub. I’d eagerly volunteer for child bedside duty so I could finish up an essay by the dim glow of a nightlight.
Hours after my husband David’s cancer diagnosis in 2006 I pondered how I’d go about writing about it. How else to bear the possibility of losing my life’s partner but through writing? I blogged my way through my mother’s lung cancer treatment four years later. In the months following her death, starkly awakened to my own mortality, I made the decision to take my writing seriously. That winter, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point.
My husband would offer to watch the kids, hand me a mug of hot tea and shoo me out the door to Mom’s empty house, my private writing retreat. There, I found the solitude and silence I’d craved for so many years. I accomplished more writing in those three months than I had in the previous three years, grief the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of a creative mother my muse.
Even after the sale of the house, the creative fire that had been ignited in me continued to flame. By early 2012, I’d begun teaching coupon workshops, writing a weekly newspaper column, and obtained a literary agent who pitched my ethnographic research on the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing. My husband reveled in all of it, driving me to presentations to claim a seat in the back of the room. During my first scheduled workshop, as I worked the room animatedly, my glance landed on David. My breath caught in my throat at the look of utter adoration on his face.
“I loved seeing you that way,” he commented on the way home. “You come alive in front of an audience. You’re flying.” David had become the wind beneath my wings. I reminded him I couldn’t do any of it without him.
And then, I had to.
Less than two weeks following that hospital bed encounter in March 2012, my beloved died in his sleep. The next morning, fingers thick with grief, I penned one of the most difficult pieces of writing I’d ever done; my husband’s obituary.
It would have been easy to give up the writing, workshops and public speaking. Instead, remembering the look on his face and those words at the hospital, my writing took on a frantic pace, borne of pain and a renewed determination. A corner of the couch became a paper nest. I’d sit for hours, surrounded by piles of papers and books. I journaled, blogged, wrote essays, polished one manuscript, and began another. Seven months after David’s death I signed a contract for the book that had been his idea. By the time it was released in 2013, my eight-year-old grandson was dying too; losing a three-year battle with cancer.
I’ll never forget that July day, standing in front of a Barnes & Noble window display of my book. I felt nothing, numb with cumulative grief. In the ensuing six years, I’d sign five more contracts, becoming less anesthetized with each book’s release.
In February 2017 I revisited my muse through notebooks and a memory book Mom had left behind. I read letters she’d written me, marveling at how her words and wise advice could still inspire me, years after her death. I flipped through scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings about her art and photos of the various woodcarvings and paintings she’d completed, realizing anew that nothing had stopped her from creating. Nothing. Not raising ten children, poverty, or the death of my father.
Just as nothing would stop me from writing. I began another book, chronicling that legacy of creativity. In it, I demonstrate how we are all built to create, whether through painting, gardening, music, or like me, as a wordsmith.
Must I write?
I’ve built my life around it.
What about you? Is writing your calling? Do you have a story about your writing? I hear it all the time in the writing workshops I teach. “I don’t have time.” “I’m not good enough to be published.” The reasons, the excuses, the self-doubts. If you have it in you to write, don’t let anything stop you. I didn’t. That’s one of the messages in Positive Writer Bryan Hutchinson’s new book “Serious Writers Never Quit.”