The first essay I wrote in college was a reaction piece to Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”. I wrote about my mother’s need for space and the reasons why she wasn’t writing the book I knew she carried in pieces inside her head. I wrote about how she had transformed a closet in our house into a place for her desk and her typewriter and her ashtray, and I wrote about how, as a family, we never left her alone long enough for her to write anything of substance.
Claiming a space and time of your own in this world for your creative work can seem like a ridiculously arrogant and self-centered move. What idea do you have that’s so important it trumps cooking your family a hot meal or going to the gym to swim laps? What potentially stupid novel or painting or collage do you plan on creating, hiding away from people who want—need!!—your time? You didn’t even get A’s in English or in Art 101. Who the heck do you think you are: Michelangelo? Time is money. You don’t have it to fart around. You have to get stuff done, and no one needs to know what your vision is. They need to know you’ll be there at the bake sale with warm brownies. Narcissists get one good look at themselves and they fall in love and it’s all downhill from there. Don’t be like them. Don’t stare in the mirror so intently. You’re not all that.
In my heart, I think my mother got cancer because she didn’t start her book in time. I know, I know. I didn’t say I was sane, but I can type and press send, so here I am. I think my mother’s need for self-expression warped her organs into knots and kept joy and radiant health from freely circulating her system. I’ll tell you something: when my mother finally DID start her book and soon after had the cancer diagnosis, she was often glowing with happiness, even when she was sick from the chemo. She had let herself fall madly in love with her subject, Louisa Catherine Adams, and although she was sometimes yellow with poor physical health, my mother was alive. She’d let herself fall into the pit of her own curiousity and was swimming in delight.
She died before the book was published. She missed the glowing write-up on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and the long coverage in The New Yorker. Because I am obnoxious and rude, I joke that God took out my mom before the reviews came out because she would have been insufferable in her conceit. I have to joke because the truth is too painful to bear. My mom missed the party celebrating the fruits of her imagination and heart. She would have had so much fun, and everyone who loved her would have benefitted from her joy.
It wasn’t until after I had written my own book and after my mother’s best friend had sent me the journals my mother had given her for safekeeping before her death that I saw it wasn’t all our fault that my mother hadn’t written when she was younger. It was in large part her own. I also saw that perhaps, at eighteen, while I thought I was writing about my mother’s need for space, perhaps I was writing about my own.
By some miracle, earlier this year a famous writer saw I needed space when I didn’t even see it myself, and she offered me her apartment for three months. That room of my own changed everything. I became a writer in that space because I wrote. I became myself.
I believe in creation. If I could, I would take each of you singularly and drag you into a room, slam the door, and tell you to fucking make something. I don’t care what. Pull out whatever is inside of you—even if it feels like you are empty, that you contain not multitudes but yawning space, I promise you--I swear to everything that is pure and real--there’s good stuff in there. And the world will be all the richer for your discoveries.
At the end of Ron Hanson’s wonderful book, Mariette in Ecstasy, Mariette asks God what He wants of her and we, the reader, wait for the burdensome list, but God is lighter than that. He doesn’t tell her to be good or to change or to pray for redemption. He says Surprise me.
Don’t let life wear you down until you are nothing but a to-do list and a pile of bills. Go ahead. Open the door to yourself. Surprise us all.