It’s been six months, and here is why: it is hard to write much of anything else when you’re preoccupied with writing approximately 532 essays for Creative Writing MFA applications, with requirements ever so slightly but still significantly different for each school. Give us 40 pages of your very best essay samples; give us 20-30 pages; well, we want two essays, no more and no less. Double-spaced. Single-spaced. Why here (and only here, even though our acceptance rate is a scant 2%)? Why an MFA, and why now? You get 1,000 words to explain. No, no more than 500 words. No, two-pages single-spaced, screw the word count. Sorry, double-spaced.
Nothing humbles a writer straight out of writing quite like reading her own sentences about her own writing, so many times in so many forms that the words start sounding martian. “They’re right to ask,” I started thinking. “Why do I want to do this? Do I? Do I have anything to say?” Oh, god. Do I have anything to say?
I have everything to say. Everything I have to say is too much. How do you write about…all of this? [*Gestures broadly at everything.*] Yesterday, after more than an hour spent Googling for somewhere, anywhere, literally anywhere to get a rapid COVID test, I joked that perhaps I finally have to start Tweeting instead of merely lurking on Twitter, because I am desperate to scream into the void: “I AM SO MAD I AM SO MAD I AM SO MAD#@Jansm&sadlk8*EKjasD, etc etc.” (Slightly different variations of the same Tweet, every day of 2022? Could go viral, honestly. Pun intended.)
How do you write about your grandma dying, when even “grandma” is far too sugared a word for the hot salt of her influence, for the gape she left behind? I was going to call her to ask for the story behind the silver bangle I wear almost every day, which was hers, before it was my mom’s, before it was mine. I was going to ask about the moment she and Grandpa met. But I was too late. I leapt onto a plane from New York to Virginia, praying for a goodbye but getting only a few hours of shared family grief before I discovered I’d been closely exposed to COVID, just before Grandma left earth. Mourning while double-masked and vigilant, tripping over my own feet as I stepped backward when someone came close for a cry or a hug: how do you write about that?
How do you write about finally testing positive for COVID a handful of days later, and then riding out the 10-day isolation period in the basement of the childhood home that only belonged to your parents for 12 more days total? They were moving. Before the visit to New York that got me sick, and before rushing to Virginia, I’d been in that basement for days, sifting through all of my childhood things that needed to be packed or trashed: the elementary school report cards. The print-out of the email my parents wrote to all their friends when I got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The “about me” poster I made for an elementary school show-and-tell, with its glue stick handiwork still in near-perfect condition, on which I included a cut-out photo of me and Grandma with the handwritten caption, “This is my grandmother, who is very much like me. We both love to cook and do art, and we often do them together.” Also on the poster: a photocopy of “one of the first poems I ever wrote,” and a drawing of the journal I used daily to “get my feelings out.” And a sketch of the world, personified with a cartoon face and raising its hand to a peace sign: “Here’s a picture of world peace, which is one of my biggest wishes.” I took a photo of the poster, then crumpled and tossed it. There was too much stuff to keep. By the time I returned with COVID, though, there wasn’t much stuff at all anymore. The space was cavernously empty. Everything was boxed. I sat on the bumpy carpet to write Grandma’s obituary and a short composition that became a eulogy, which might have been the two most important assignments of my writing career anyway. Maybe those were more than enough.
And then I returned to Oakland, but…there was no real returning. And besides, my suitcase has been packed every other weekend for months. It wasn’t just those trips. It was New York again, for a wedding. It was driving up the coast for my two-year anniversary with Lauren. It was a family vacation, two birthday trips, Grandma’s delayed funeral. I have hardly sat still enough to condense all the happenings to stories. It is hard to trace the meaning when you’re just trying to keep up.
Aren’t you, too? Just trying to keep up? This pandemic is relentless in its mutability. It keeps changing shape, wriggling out of grasp like a snake, just when we think we’re safe. And the floods, and the wildfires, and the tornadoes — we are all trying to survive. We are creatures, remember? For our extra “intelligence” [*makes exaggerated air quotes*] in comparison to other animals, we get creative productivity as a special bonus. We lose access to that bonus when there is no space for it; when we, too, are mostly just trying to feed ourselves and not die. We are doing the best we can, with far too much happening and far too little time and energy and breathing room to process it: to be good partners and children and parents and friends and colleagues. Maybe that work is creativity enough.
I am proud of all the ways I’ve been creative in 2021. I am. (This is why I write: to dig the dignity from the mess.) I have built my first longterm home with my partner this year. I have steered my work in an entirely new direction, both vulnerable and meaningful. I have experimented with as many forms of self-care as necessary — run a lot of miles on intuitively-carved routes, cooked exorbitant amounts of farmers market broccoli, sunk my heart into so many books I’ve adored. I have also slept not enough, eaten too much chocolate, drank too much wine and coffee. I’ve felt exquisitely isolated and ached for in-person friendships, for soil under my fingernails, for a sense of direction. I’ve shattered, like, four or five mugs and glasses. I have done the best I can.
Even if — or maybe because — I haven’t written all of the essays I planned to write.
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