Thursday, February 6, 2014


Today begins the Olympics. I am the only one in my family who really cares about this, especially in winter, so I began my campaign for their enthusiasm (or, frankly, just a bit of tolerance for my own enthusiasm) by using our family movie night to introduce the kids to the movie Cool Runnings. They didn't remember what a bobled race was, or know who the Jamaican bobsled team was, and with both in the news recently, I figured it would be a fun and sneaky way to get them interested.

It worked. At least a little. They laughed. They oohed and ahh-ed and asked a lot of questions as they watched the real footage of the bobsleds hurtling down the tube of ice. We went on the internet and found out more about the original team, and about the team going this year. We looked up the bobsled schedule. They are intrigued.

But while the movie is funny and informative and inspiring, my favorite scene is a quiet one, the night before the big race, where the main character, a young man desperate for a win, confronts his coach who he just discovered had once been disgraced by cheating. "Why?" he asks. "You already had two gold medals." And the coach answers:

"I had to win. You see, I'd made winning my whole life. And when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning... A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without one, you'll never be enough with one."

That's resonated with me since the first time I watched the movie so many year ago. Not because I've been after gold medals or hoped for the Olympics or anything quite so literal, but because it's really a message for life - for anything we strive for.

Lately I've had a lot of people asking me what I'm working on now or when I'm going to be done with my current novel. A couple of times, when I've answered that I'm working on the same novel I went into my MFA with three years ago, they say, gaped mouth, "Still?" Yes. Still.

Let me be clear: I love these people. I absolutely love that they are asking. I know they are asking because they want to read my next book, because they liked my last one, because they want me to be successful. All of these things in their heart are good.

But I... I can't help but cringe when I hear them, when I have to say, "Yes, I am still writing the same book I was writing three years ago." Because saying that makes me feel like I've failed along the way. I can't deny it. I am a slow writer. I have rewritten this book over nine times because I want to get it just right, and I haven't felt good about that until now. I am distracted by my family, who will always take first place in my time. I have less time now that I am tutoring most days, all day. Even with my best intentions, sometimes at night when I carve a bit of time to work on it, my brain is mush and I just want to watch 30 minutes of TV and go to bed.

And in that late hour, when I stare at the screen, either pouring words onto it or struggling to find the words, I wonder, "Am I enough without this?"

Do I have to keep publishing, keep finishing books, win awards, to be enough?

And while there are times, especially when I am having to say, "Yes, the same book..." that I feel like I am not, most of the time, I am. Because being a writer doesn't make me worthwhile. Having a publishing credit, heck, even having a Pushcart Prize, wouldn't make me more than what I am right now. They are wonderful things, to be sure, but they are not my worth. I don't want to someday say:

"You see, I'd made publishing my whole life. And when you make publishing your whole life, you have to keep on publishing... Having your book published is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."

Fill that in with whatever it is that drives you each day.

I'll finish this book. I'll probably write another. And another, I hope. I don't know if anything I write will ever be published, but I'll keep writing, because I love it, because I want to, but not because it gives me any worth.
When I watch the Olympics, it is not the gold medals that most draw me. It's the stories. It's the people, their lives, what they've overcome to get there that grab my heart. It is often the underdogs I root for. And sometimes, the fact that the competitors even make it down the track or the hill in one piece, manage to finish a routine even if they fall, makes me tear up. I want each one of them to feel in awe that they are even there.

Sometimes when I'm writing, I feel like that. Without the publishing, without the awards, I'm just writing, and I feel pretty lucky to be doing it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Things That Matter

It's been over a year since I turned in my thesis and unofficially finished grad school. I'm not sure what I thought would happen after that, but this year was not it. I barely had time to breathe after my advisor signed off on my stories before I ended up in a flurry of medical worries. Last December I spent running from doctor to doctor, ultra-sound to MRI to biopsies and, in January, just days after returning from my thesis presentation, surgery.

I might have harbored dreams of surgery recovery that involved the required off-my-feet recoup time being blissful non-stop writing time, but that didn't happen. Instead, I slept. And watched bad TV. I researched some literary magazine and submitted my short stories to a few, and played with a few beginnings of new novels that didn't go anywhere. I job hunted for a job that wasn't there.

I thought I'd have time. I thought all this time I'd spent writing and reading for school would suddenly be open time I could do amazing things with. Turns out, time is like a hole in the sand near the ocean. You can scoop out the water that's in it, but more water will keep pouring in and filling it. 

Finding the time to write became harder the harder writing became. I second guessed everything I wrote. Instead of hearing my own voice, I could only hear the voice of my advisors, whispers that kept my fingers hovering over the keys rather than pummeling out words. With all the demands of the day, was it worth it to stare at a screen for hours on end, only knowing I'd end up deleting it all anyway?

I wrestled a lot with the purpose of writing. Why was I doing it, anyway? While the piles of ideas stacked up in a folder, scraps of characters and plots and themes, none of the stories really mattered in the scheme of life. They were just stories. And I wanted what I wrote to matter.

After graduation ceremonies in June, I returned to a tutoring job with an online tutoring company working with college and grad students on their essays. I love it - best job I've ever had - but it doesn't pay much more than working at fast food and I don't see the same students over and over, necessarily, and I wondered a lot: Am I making any kind of real difference?

I suspect most people at some point ask themselves, Am I doing something that matters?

Stories themselves matter, I know. They matter because they help people see from another point of view. They help people empathize and broaden the scope of their thinking. They provide escape and enjoyment in what might otherwise be a life burdened with demands and worries. Stories let people know they are not alone.

I know all this, and yet, every time I sit to write, I wonder, "Is this worth it? Am I writing something that matters?"

I don't know the answer to that. But I keep writing. I keep at it because I love it. Because I am compelled to. Because I think I have a story to tell, if only to myself.

And when I get frustrated that I have no time to write because I am running my kids to band concerts and helping them with homework and cooking dinner and answering a million questions that fly at me every time I sit to write and cleaning clothes and tutoring some panicky college student through a med school application essay, I think, "This matters. All of this. Investing in people always matters."

The truth is that no matter what we do for a living, what fills the hours of our days, what really matters is how we do what we do, and how that impacts people. People matter.