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On craft as catharsis and the narrative trap
I’m currently in upstate New York, in the Catskills area near the town of Woodstock, for a Foster retreat. I wanted to be sure that I could be as present as possible during it, so I tapped my friendfor a guest post. Alicia is a great writer and editor with impeccable taste, and she has been incredibly generous with her time editing my work. I think you’re all going to enjoy her essay. Be sure to subscribe to Alicia’s writing here 👇
The weekend before I graduated from college, I joined my grandfather for lunch at his upscale retirement home in the suburbs of Washington DC. Over bland mashed potatoes and overcooked salmon he inquired as to my plans, hopes and dreams. The Great Recession loomed large that spring; my prospects as a millennial liberal arts graduate felt both expansive and uncertain. “I think you’d make an excellent housewife,” he suggested.
“The best reason to go to college,” my grandmother later concurred, “is to find a better husband.”
I relayed my grandparents’ advice to my housemate, Michael, as we donned caps and gowns and embarked on one final winding walk down to our university’s front lawn.
“I think you’d make a terrible housewife,” he said.
It’s been 15 years since that muggy spring. Michael now resides in a Brooklyn one-bedroom fully renovated with a five-burner gas range and Japanese bidet. When I visit, I’ll often skip the air mattress and slip platonically into his queen-size bed — a nostalgic tribute to our last night as undergrads when, having just sold his mattress on Craigslist, he knocked at my door to ask if we might share. My own bed was a twin.
“I can be big spoon or little spoon,” he’d offered.
Just a few weeks later, Little Spoon embarked upon the master’s degree that would fast-track his career at some of our country’s most venerated institutions. I embarked on a cross-country roadtrip in a magenta polka-dotted Ford Fiesta I won off a YouTube contest, creating social media content in exchange for free gas. Looking back, our respective introductions to the “real world” feel emblematic of all the ways our lives have diverged ever since. He’s collected enviable professional accolades for a growing body of work while I’ve sought love on reality TV and financial stability through a start-up that didn’t quite turn out as planned. He’s managed to establish healthy boundaries with his craft whereas I still walk through the world inseparable from whatever stories surround me. By summer we might split an Airbnb in a French seaside town and he’ll wonder aloud whether it’s a good thing I’m the first person who comes to mind should he ever need a warm introduction to, say, steadfast election deniers or someone serving a life sentence for capital murder. The last time we found ourselves in LA, he expressed concern when I didn’t appear to have a steady day job but still insisted on treating us to dinner.
It’s a fine line, his begrudging smile seemed to imply, between aspiring to the life of Joan Didion and ending up like one of the characters who inspired her work.
I’m thinking about all this as I find myself back in Manhattan this week. A friend needed a last-minute dog sitter in her condo overlooking the East River; I’ve been through a series of recent heartbreaks and could use the change of scenery. In periods of grief and transition, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be in a place where people talk literature on sidewalks — not least because everyone always says to “write it out.”
Still, as I approach middle age, I’d be lying if I said part of me hasn’t grown suspicious of writing as a means of self-actualization, much less self-care. It’s hard to say how many times my writer’s mind has gotten me into trouble versus helped with the repair. Even as I accept the science of narrative as therapy, I can’t help but wonder how present a person is while mining for material in the background. How often have I weighed major life decisions through a lens of plot? My writing progress or lack thereof is a reason to work myself into an irritable mood on any given Sunday.
It’s why I claim to crave stability but run without fail toward fodder.
Earlier this spring, I took off for one last extended European vacation with a collection of LSAT prep books in tow. I’d decided that I would come home, finally apply to law school and abandon the idea of a creative life altogether when a series of events unfolded in my personal life to successfully derail — or at least forestall — those plans. Over emergency ice cream and a generous glass of wine, a lawyer girlfriend reminded me I’m meant to “write the stories, not live them.” For now I’ll take it as a sign from the universe to give catharsis through craft one last shot. Once this writers’ strike comes to an end, I’m thinking I’ll pitch the miniseries to Netflix.
If all else fails, I still have a couple childbearing years left to find a husband.
Maybe Michael will let me practice with his Le Creuset.
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