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Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.

Writer. Editor. Storyteller. Teacher. Roller Derby Girl.

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Monday
Nov122012

Downriver in the Writing Life

Over the weekend I read an essay on The Rumpus called "Not Writing Is Your Alligator." In it, writer Catherine Lacey responds to a letter from a young writer. The gist of her advice is that you should run from the state of "not writing" as you would from an alligator that was chasing you.

The thing that struck me, beyond how well-written and insightful the essay is, was this: I am not 19 years old anymore.

The young writer who wrote the letter to Lacey was a 19-year-old guy who was just beginning to navigate the waters of I'm-choosing-a-college-and-I-want-to-follow-my-passion-of-writing-while-my-family-wants-me-to-be-practical-and-I-know-I'll-have-to-make-money-somehow-but-how-will-I-do-that-without-killing-my-soul?. You know those waters, right? A lot of us have swum in that river.

In her response, Lacey mentions that she has about eight years on the guy, which would put her around 27.

The second thing that struck me while reading the essay: I am not 27 anymore.

And then the third thing that struck me hit me really hard, like a large book -- maybe an old-fashioned encyclopedia like the kind teenagers used to consult in the reference section of the library: I am closer to 39 than I am to 19 or even 29.

Well now. 

** ** **

At this thought the river current sped up. I felt like I had woke up on a raft waaay downriver from where I'd started out and realized several things at once:

  1. I've been on this river a long time.
  2. The last 18 years of this journey have flown by fast.
  3. This section along the river looks nothing like the land I left at age 19.
  4. At least I'm on raft and not still swimming.
  5. How is it possible that I'm still on this river?!
  6. On second thought, this section of the river looks a lot like it did when I was 19.
  7. Am I lost?
  8. What was my destination again, and how will I know when I've arrived?
  9. I wonder who else has floated down this river. (Mark Twain comes to mind, but that's just because of the raft.)
  10. Is that an alligator?!

** ** **

Four years ago this week I'd just returned from a writing retreat in New Jersey. I thought of that trip as I voted last Tuesday because I remember driving across Pennsylvania the day after the last election, desperately scanning the radio for a station carrying NPR. But there was no NPR to be had in the heartland of this very wide state, only the nasty Rush Limbaugh, sappy religious stations, and popular country music, none of which are to my taste. By the time I made it to the retreat house, a low pressure system had parked itself just off shore and gave us three straight days of total cloud cover, high surf, and a depressing drizzle  that occasionally flared up into real rain.

I didn't write anything during that retreat, but it turned out to be a pivotal moment in my writing life, as it's when I decided to look into MFA programs. Within four months I'd researched, applied to, and heard back from my top choices. That summer I attended my first on-campus residency. And now, blink!, I've had my degree for more than a year, there's been another presidential election, and I have a book that's still only about one-quarter of the way done.

** ** **

When I was 19, the prolific writing habit of my childhood and earlier teen years sputtered. It seemed to diminish in direct proportion to how much good literature I read. I avoided creative writing classes in college for as long as I could, terrified by the thought that I might discover that I suck at this thing I love. Even after enjoying and doing well in the few writing courses I finally took, I slunk back to my literature studies, and the bright idea of being a writer dimmed until I forgot to look for it as a beacon in the night.

** ** **

When I was in my mid-twenties I first heard of the "40 Under 40" awards presented by Pittsburgh Magazine to people under the age of 40 for doing great things in the city. And I thought: Forty? Really? That's not exactly young. What's so remarkable about someone under 40 doing something great? Maybe 25 under 25, or even 30 under 30, but gee whiz, 40? By the time you're approaching 40 you've had ample time to figure things out and get on with your greatness. I'd certainly hope you were doing something worthwhile by 40!

Well now.

** ** **

Everything changes.

** ** **

I'll be 40 in just three years. That's not much time to get on with my greatness. Panic could set in if I let it. Fight or flight.

** ** **

Four years later: I'm still trying to figure out how to write this book.

Eighteen years later: I'm still running from the same damn alligator, figuring out how to navigate this river.

** ** **

Nothing changes.

** ** **

For too many years I've allowed the fear of failing to gobble up the desire to write. I've been running from my writing because it's lodged in the belly of an alligator with bad breath.

I wish I'd had as much sense of urgency and direction at 19 as I do now when I'm one month away from 37. I wish I'd turned to look the primordial reptile in its slitted eyes and slayed that fear dragon before exhausting myself by running away from it.

** ** **

So what do we have to work with here? There's a river, a raft, a span of years, and a metaphorical beast guarding a golden treasure. Yep, that's the writing life (and the story), and I'm still in it.

Reader Comments (3)

Ah, Jenna, I am closer to 55 than I am to any of those numbers. And the river still runs. And the issues you speak of are sometimes similar over here. But as the philosopher Heraclitus once said: "You can never step in the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing onto you."

Keep flowing ... :)
November 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeb
This.
Yes.
I could read your thoughts about all of this for hours.
Thank you for this.
November 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterliz
Ah, Jenna! you are living such a good life! Carrying love and fear together is the best way to cart yourself around ... seeing as you cannot leave either one behind and remain human.

Measurement is a strange game. Be assured that age and published books won't tell your story. I hope you can pull off a life lived bringing shy words together to stand securely, and shoring up strong stingy words with beautiful backgrounds so we can bear them. You have met that alligator and whether you ride on its back or it swims away with you in its teeth, its worth doing what you do. Only so much of the encouragement will ever come from outside your own head.

Thank you for putting in words how your mind has been churning in judgment of you .... you are appreciated out here in cyberspace.
November 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersarah

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