On quitting writing, on building a home, on quitting writing again
To kick off the LivingSmall at 20 series, here’s an essay I wrote for a workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of years back. It’s never seemed like something to send out, but it’s a pretty good summation of the long-term project.
The email from the agent was good, but it was a clear no. She loved the writing. She could see there was a real story. But, she said, she could also see the places where I didn’t want to write it. The seams were showing. She couldn’t take it on.
“Oh good” I thought. “I don’t have to write this book.”
It was a reaction so visceral and odd that it surprised even me. But my relief was enormous. I didn’t have to write this book.
This was the third time I’d tried to write this. Three major drafts, maybe four if you counted the one I wrote as fiction, and the second big draft in three years. The previous version was all about the aftermath of my brother’s death, about the life I’d built for myself from the rubble. Much of the content was culled from the Living Small blog I’d kept for years, in which I documented my Montana project. That project was about growing and cooking and putting up my own food, about chickens and foraging for mushrooms, about wilderness and clotheslines. About how I’d landed in this place I hadn’t expected to be, how I’d found this odd man and our unconventional love for one another, and how I’d come to a place of safety in our relationship, my house, this town, the community.
Readers said it was fine, but because I’d left out Patrick’s death, and the family stuff, because I’d left out the disaster that fueled it all, it didn’t work. You have to put Patrick on the page, they told me.
And so I did. I sat back down and wrote it all out, from the coroner arriving in my yard to my mother disowning me after the funeral. Plus clotheslines, and garden and cooking and wilderness. This was the draft the agent was responding to. The draft in which I tried to tell what happened, and why my brother and I were so close, and why losing him meant my world caved in — without letting my parents have too much room on the page. They’d done such damage, and we’d worked so hard to get out from under it. I didn’t want to let them take over the story. It’s sexy, that part of the story, their bad behavior. Bad behavior is always more compelling than good behavior. But I was damned if I was going to give them my book. And this nice agent was telling me she could see where I was shoving them offstage, and that it wasn’t working.
At the time the “oh good. I don’t have to write this thing” feeling was very weird. I had not been given permission to quit, this was not at all what her email said. But I read it that way. It wasn’t the first time I’d given up on the book, nor was it the first time I’d given up on the book with a huge sense of relief.
I knew I didn’t have to write this. Just because I’d written one book, just because I’d published one very dark novel didn’t mean that I had to plumb this experience next---the devastation of losing my younger brother just before my 40th birthday, and the subsequent breakdown of what residual relationships I had with my parents. Giving up meant I wasn’t going to have to write about how Patrick was the second brother I’d buried, or the craziness of our childhood and how that left us closer than many sibling pairs. I wasn’t going to have to write about the ongoing, never-ending war with my mother, or about how she’d thrown me out a couple of days after the second funeral, the one “at home” in the fancy suburb where we’d grown up broke among rich people. I wasn’t going to have to write about any of it, because I’d just spent another solid year working on the draft I’d sent this agent, and it didn’t work.
I didn’t know how to write it. Which meant I didn’t have to write it.
And so I thanked the agent for her response, and went downstairs to my basement sewing room, and cut out a dress pattern. It was a new pattern, one I’d been thinking about for days. I could see in my head how it was going to look, and how in this dress, made from a straw-colored linen I’d ordered online several weeks ago, how I’d look interesting. The pattern reminded me of a designer I like from Australia, Sark Studio. For years her website landing page was an overhead shot of herself on a bicycle. A woman a few years older than I am, on a bike, in a chic skirt made from nice linen, a skirt that had a real shape to it and yet was also a skirt that you could ride a bicycle in, and she wore a jacket in a similar linen, slightly fitted but a jacket you could move in. These were the clothes of a woman who did things, a woman who knew how to present her aging body as an interesting shape moving through space.
That’s what I wanted. That’s what I’d been exploring down there in my basement, where it was cool in the late August heat, where the smoke from forest fires couldn’t choke me as I worked. I closed my laptop, and went downstairs to pin a paper pattern to linen, to cut it out, and to spend the afternoon sewing up a dress, a dress that let me present myself as the self I wanted to present.
I didn’t have to write the book.
I couldn’t write the book.
I could do other things.
I’d moved to Livingston, MT, because when I was in graduate school at UC Davis, Gary Snyder told me that if I wanted artistic freedom, I should find a place where I could afford to buy and pay off a house. Places with cheap housing attract artists, he said. And if your house is paid off you won’t have to go teach in places where you don’t want to live. It took me nearly ten years after that to get to a place where I could even think about buying a house, but when I finally had the resources, it was Gary’s advice that guided my search.
After finishing my PhD, I spent four years working as a technical editor for Cisco Systems. My brother Patrick and I had moved in together, hoping to repair some of the damage our alcoholic family had done, hoping that if we could figure out how to make a home with one another, then perhaps we could transfer those skills to other people.
I liked my Cisco job, and I liked having some financial stability. My novel had sold just after I’d started at Cisco, and although it did fine for a first novel, it certainly never made me enough money to live on. I bought a couple of pieces of art, paid off some bills, went a few places to do readings, sold a small movie option, and then it was over. The Cisco job though, that was perennial. And I liked it. I liked figuring out how to write instructional material, liked the people I worked with, and liked that they were willing to let me move away and telecommute.
What I didn’t like was the Bay Area. It was too big and too crowded and my entire identity was as a Cisco person, not as a writer. I was bad at the few writer events I went to, lurking in corners and failing to schmooze. We lived way out in an unfashionable suburb, in a nice townhouse up against a huge regional park. We could afford that. We couldn’t afford to live in the city, or Berkeley, or even Oakland. I was commuting to San Jose and by then Patrick was commuting all the way up to Sears Point, almost two hours drive. It was alienating. I didn’t have any real friends. And I never wanted to owe anyone the kind of money it would have taken to buy a place in the greater Bay Area.
I knew about Livingston because I knew there were writers here. And I wanted to get back to the Rockies. I’d lived in the Rockies long enough to have a sense of where the enclaves were — towns with some artsy people, old houses that could be had for not that much money, mountains and wilderness close enough to walk every day. The Bay Area was so expensive, and the money drive was gaining momentum in a way that alienated me. While making enough money to have a house and a car and be essentially okay was crucial to me, I was utterly disinterested in getting rich, or in people who were interested in getting rich. I’d grown up among the wealthy, and that held no glamour for me. I’d fled that world when I fled Lake Forest at 21, in search of some sweet spot where there were artists and wilderness both. Livingston looked like it might be a place like that, so I came up, looked at some houses, and within months found myself signing a mortgage on this two bedroom house two blocks from downtown, built in 1903, with a vegetable plot in the backyard, four apple trees, two plum trees and a line of lilacs along one property line.
I finally had a place to settle in, and a place to build a real garden. I’d been growing things in and around rental apartments forever. I grew flowers in a window box overlooking the Fifth street offramp that summer I worked in Seattle, cultivated a rocky vegetable garden behind my tiny house in Telluride at 9000 feet, and grew tomatoes in old recycling bins in the alley behind my Salt Lake apartment building in grad school. Finally, I had a real garden, and I was in a place where they sold canning equipment in the grocery store, and where people had a freezers in their basements so they could store the elk and venison and antelope meat that nearly everyone hunted each fall. I was back in a place where people knew how to do things.
I was ready to make a home, and although Patrick coming along wasn’t part of the plan, that he loved it here and wanted to stay was good. We loved one another. That Livingston was the kind of place where making a home was not synonymous with being married or having kids only made it easier. It was a town full of artists. And carpenters. And hunting and fishing guides. It’s a railroad town and as my 83 year old friend John Fryer says, it’s always been transient, and it’s always been a little odd. So buying a house as a single woman wasn’t weird here, nor was settling into a social life. It’s not the kind of place where everything is couples, or couples with kids. Happy hour on Friday is just that, everyone together for a drink, come as you are.
By the time I responded to editorial rejection by going downstairs to make a dress, I’d been making things pretty steadily for the fifteen years since Patrick had died. I always made things, we come from a family who makes things. Part of it was because we were always broke. I was sent off to pre-debutante dances in a taffeta skirt my mother had made, a skirt whose unfinished elastic waist was concealed by a cummerbund she pulled together and then safety-pinned me into. She couldn’t make a waistband or a buttonhole, but she could make a clever cummerbund. My grandmother was famous for running up three matching dresses of an evening for my mother and my aunts, because she’d rather do that than do laundry. And when we were all little, she made playhouses out of plywood for us, built a bed for my cousin Adam in the shape of a barn, with his bed in the “hayloft.” There’s a very old photo I cherish, of my great-aunt Marie, in about 1910 or so, up to her elbows in the engine of her Model T, sleeves rolled up on her shirtwaist.
I’ve never really understood people who don’t make things, or who are afraid to make things. People don’t even cook. I’ve had arguments with people who are convinced that eating out is cheaper than eating in, that cooking every night is some sort of weird affectation. I’ve always cooked, and having a garden only made that more interesting. The first ten years or so that I had this house, especially when I was writing the blog and reviewing cookbooks, I cooked a lot. I cooked the year after Patrick died so that I could invite people over, fill the house with good energy again. I cooked for myself to stave off despair. I learned to cook desserts because as the single woman invited to the party, what people will usually let you bring is a dessert.
And because I had the garden, I learned how to put things up. I blanched and froze greens, made pickles, learned to make jam. I found out where the mushrooms grow here, and found then preserved morels and chanterelles, oyster mushrooms and boletes.
The thing about making stuff is that you have learned to do a real thing with your hands and your mind and your imagination. Whether it’s painting the kitchen or knitting a sweater or raising a chicken or growing a tomato, you have brought something into the world that wasn’t there before. And for me, during those long years when I couldn’t seem to figure out how to write this book, there was enormous satisfaction in that. I couldn’t figure out the story, but I could make a frangipane raspberry tart to take to a party, or knit a pair of hand warmers for one of my nieces, or find enough porcini in the woods to keep me in dried mushrooms for a year.
It was Bernard Cooper’s memoir about art school, My Avant-Garde Education that caused me to rethink all the making. I’d felt guilty about it, as though every day spent in the garden, every weekend spent sewing up a jacket, every steamy afternoon spent canning tomatoes was time stolen from the books I should have been writing.
Because I felt like a failure. I was succeeding at making a home, but I was not succeeding as a writer. My novel was fading farther and farther into the past, and while I’d published essays here and there, had been in one of those Best of anthologies, and had blogged for nearly a decade, I still didn’t have a second book. If I wasn’t publishing, then I wasn’t a writer. I’d become that thing I so hated when I was young, the person who shows up at the workshop with a manuscript and the line “I do XXX for a living, but really I’m a writer.”
It wasn’t too hard to accept being a failure as a writer, since I’d already failed at my one true job, fixing the life that Patrick and I shared. Patrick was dead because I didn’t take his keys that night at the bar when the little voice in my head told me I should. It was an actual voice. Take his keys, he’s going to do something stupid. I didn’t take his keys because there was a woman flirting with him, and the woman who had broken up with him was on the other side of the room, and for the first night in months he was out, and having fun, and being his big expansive self. I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want to make my brother, who had been slogging through a long dark spell of the worst depression I’d ever seen him wrestle with, feel even worse. I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of the woman. I wanted him to go home with her, get laid, feel a little better.
So I left him there. The woman didn’t go home with him, and he drove a friend home, fifteen miles outside of town, on a bad gravel road, and didn’t make it back. The coroner came into my yard, into the yard of my little house I’d bought to keep us safe, came into my yard past the cosmos and the four o’clock’s and the sunflowers blooming in the bed outside my living room windows, put one big hand on my shoulder and said “Ma’am, there’s no good way to say this. There was an accident last night. Your brother is dead.”
I’d been calling him all day. Trying to figure out where he was. His phone had been ringing out there in that willow thicket off the Cokedale road.
After failing at that, quitting writing was easy. Or rather, I never quit writing, but I did quit trying to be a writer. I wrote things, and published sometimes. I went back to that second novel, the one I’d abandoned when Patrick died. I wrote a mystery novel. And every few years, I’d pick up this book again, pick up my failed memoir, the one I couldn’t figure out how to write, and take another run at it.
Bernard Cooper taught at Utah while I was there, and although I never studied with him directly, I remembered liking him. He was kind, a quality in short supply in that program. So when My Avant-Garde Education came out, I bought it in hardcover. Cooper had gone to art school, not a writing program. This was a world I was utterly ignorant of, but reading Cooper’s sentimental education clicked something for me, something about how the concept of process could be useful for a writer. It’s not something we value much. Writers are all about publication, all about the product. We lost a local writer a few years back, a lovely gentle man who, as every one of his fellow male writers pointed out at the memorial service we had for him, had published more than 80 novels. Most of those were genre — western or mysteries — and while they weren’t my thing, you had to admire the production. Capitalist America, where we admire production. Dick wrote every day, all day, and his books made money, so Dick was a Real Writer.
I was ten, fifteen, then twenty years between books, and so I was not.
But here was Bernard Cooper talking about something else entirely, talking about process. The question that took Cooper’s head off as a young art student was “Is it possible to make a work of art that is not embodied in an object?” He recalls that “In a classroom in Manhattan, on a rainy day, my perception of art was changed forever. …Vito Acconci’s pedagogy was a mixture of persistent inquiry, faith in the invisible, and nudges toward the unknown. It struck me for the first time that art might find forms beyond painting and sculpture.” And it struck me that even though I hadn’t written another book, even though I hadn’t produced a writerly object, that didn’t mean I hadn’t been involved in an extended art project, one that revolved around this house I’d bought.
I might not be a writer, but perhaps I’d been engaging in a 20 year piece of performance art?
I started the Living Small blog the year I bought the house. The original tagline was “Thoughts on Literature, Food, Faith and the Subversive Power of Living Small.” It was a project. It had always been a project. I’d moved to Livingston not only because there were artists and writers and because I found a lovely cheap house, but because I deliberately wanted to find a way to live outside the consumerist norms that had bugged me since I went sideways at the end of high school, since I found the wilderness people and left to lead canoe trips and read Thoreau. “Live deep and suck out the marrow from life,” lodged in my being like a splinter. “I went to the woods to live deliberately.” I came to Livingston to live deliberately. To build a home and find a community and to figure out a way to make myself safe against a future that looked like disaster bearing down: too many people, rising sea levels, hotter temperatures, systemic collapse.
If there’s one thing you learn from a childhood like mine it’s how to sense disaster looming.
I just never anticipated that disaster would come so fast, or that it would claim Patrick.
Cooper’s story of his artistic youth reminded me of where I’d started, leading canoe trips in my teens, trips where my friend Dennis and I tried to parse out what a genuine life would look like, and how we could live one. We wrote one another the sincere questing letters of early adulthood. What does a good life look like? How can we build one? What role does wilderness play in that life? I didn’t follow Denny to the small college on Lake Superior (that Patrick later attended), but rather took a different path to France and Ireland and then to New York, before rejoining him in North Carolina where we both worked for a hippie rafting company, a community of people who were all trying to figure out how to build an authentic life together. The tension between art and wilderness, city life and wild country was central to everything I wrestled with in my artistic and intellectual and actual life during most of my 20s and 30s. And no matter how hard I tried after grad school to pretend I was an ordinary tech worker, driving my Honda to my cubicle on the Cisco campus, Starbucks in the cup holder, I knew I wasn’t living deliberately. I wasn’t making something of my life. And so I moved to Livingston, bought my little house, and set out to see whether I could find a way to build a deliberate life while remaining employed.
What Cooper’s book gave me was a way to understand that although I hadn’t been publishing much, I had been working on this larger project of building a life, particularly in the wake of Patrick’s death. Losing Patrick had broken for good those hopes I’d held out of being able to fix my family, and I’d come home to Livingston after the Lake Forest funeral a hollow shell. I was here. I was still breathing. But it was gone. Everything was gone. Patrick was gone. My mother had turned me out. Dad was making sympathetic noises from Prague but he was so long gone that those didn’t even count.
I had to build a new life. I didn’t have a husband or kids. I had a house and two dogs. I had a town that had rallied around me.
This house had been my true grand passion. This little two bedroom house on a regular city lot is one of the key reasons I’m fine with not marrying my sweetheart Chuck even after more than a decade together. I bought this house myself, with my own money. I’ve fixed it up and paid it off and it’s mine. After our youngest brother Michael died and our parents split up, Patrick and I watched the fifteen acre horse farm go, then the house in Lake Forest go, then the condo in Madison, then even after we moved in with our father it was one house, then a smaller house, then a series of apartments in Chicago until finally Dad fled to Prague and was gone. There was no home then. Our mother too was always moving out of one place she couldn’t afford and into another, smaller, more precarious place. And when she had a head injury three years after Patrick died, and I went back to help her out, we searched from Lake Forest up to Milwaukee, looking for someplace she could afford to rent on the social security that was all she had to live on. We looked at senior complexes, and low-income units in urban redevelopment projects and Section 8 housing. We finally found her an apartment that she wound up hating, and blaming me for, but that was another story. The story here is that for a person who moved every eighteen months or so during childhood, who watched her parents zoom up and then down the ladder of financial success — there was never anyplace safe to live.
I might have given up writing more than once in the years since Patrick died, but I’d never given up making. If what the conceptual artists said was true, then perhaps I hadn’t been making things all these years as a way of hiding out, as a way of keeping busy during the long hours that make up a day when you’re alone, but perhaps I’d been, without knowing it, involved in an absorbing art project. If you took the blog into account, I’d not only been making things, but I’d been documenting the things I was making, and how this ongoing process was part of this larger project of making a home, of finding a community, of resisting the pressures of consumer capitalism, of trying to find a way to live that might slow down the climate catastrophe bearing down on us, or if that proved impossible, at least might provide the kinds of skills that would help me and the people I love survive that catastrophe.
And one of those skills is writing. One of those skills is being able to research a topic, and think about it, and make a thing, and document the making of the thing, and then move on and perhaps think about what the thing I’ve just made means. As we come out of the Trump years, as we still struggle, particularly here in Montana, to beat back the tides of aggressive stupidity and fascist authoritarianism, knowing how to think about something, knowing how to write about a thing, these too are crucial skills. Skills it turns out that I’ve been practicing for decades.
One day there will be another book, but in the meantime there are essays and blog posts and conversations with friends. In the meantime there are meals shared around tables, and jars of jam, exchanged at Christmas for so long that we’re all just giving one another back the jars they gave us last year. There is a river that rises in the spring and falls in the autumn. There are elk that come back in the winter, graze in the yard of our cabin, keep us company through the window as we pour the coffee. There is this beautiful world that we love, even in its diminished state, this beautiful world that we love and the work we all keep making, work that portrays how we feel about it.