It was on a Sunday morning last September that I received the news I’d been chosen to write this column. By Monday I was in a state of paralytic panic and by mid-week I did the thing I swore I’d never, under any circumstances, do again: I enrolled in a writing class. Many years ago I signed up for two such courses and both were utter disasters. There is no less hospitable environment for the faint of heart, physically healthy or mentally sound. Extended hospital stays, tortured childhoods, acrimonious divorces—these are the staples of a writing workshop. Maybe in a matriculated university program there’s a broad focus on structure, language and style, but in the piecemeal offerings of continuing ed it’s primarily an examination of unimaginable suffering, triumph over adversity, and the ways in which those things can be turned into copy and sold for a dollar a word. After each weekly session, I walked home deeply unmotivated to write, but intensely compelled to research more comprehensive disability insurance than what I presently carried.
The format is always the same. Ten to fifteen administrative assistants, stay-at-home-dads, and massage therapists gather around a big table and, one by one, read their assignments. Next comes a professional critique by the teacher and then feedback from the group. “Don’t hold back,” the instructor always encourages, “Remember that we are here to learn.” It’s a noble suggestion, but when someone’s essay is about a month lost to a coma, the most constructive of criticism feels cruel—even if the story is a four-page run on sentence, even if it ends in the middle of a word.
The greatest creativity on display at these things is everyone’s fictional responses to the work.
“Hopeful and inspiring,” one person offers.
“Inventive use of prepositions!” declares another.
It was bad enough that I finished each term without any semblance of a polished piece, but worsened by the fact that I’d grown to regard other people’s pain as emotionally manipulative—the literary version of playing teacher’s pet. A man described his descent into heroin addiction and I rolled my eyes. A grandmother chronicled her struggles with dementia and all I could think was: show off. I experienced infinitesimal growth as a fledging writer and a disturbing devolution as a human being.
A more serious, driven person would have gamely persevered and found the education they needed, but I’m lethargic and juvenile—all dreams, no discipline, all tomorrows, no today. I took a brief, eleven-year hiatus from the pen and then finally sat down and wrote a few things. On a whim, I sent one to McSweeney’s. A month later, I received my acceptance letter and an ongoing opportunity to write. It would not hit me for a number of hours that I hadn’t won a prize, I’d accepted a job—one for which I had nothing in the way of experience save a few rambling emails and a vague understanding that the top of paragraphs are no longer indented.
Terrified I was about to engage in a fairly public failing, I made two decisions.
1. No one could know I was doing this and that included my parents. I’d put those blameless bystanders through enough of my harebrained stabs at self-invention—I’m an actress! A poet! A marketing intern! A yoga teacher! No, wait, I’m Italian!—always sounding like a junkie trying to convince his folks he’s clean, staring into the faces of perpetual disappointment with a jittery, strung out rendition of the “Things will be different this time” revue.
2. I would immediately find myself a workshop and learn how to write.
The initial appeal of Barb’s class was that it was catalogued under the journalism curriculum rather than the typical “personal essay” category. Her online reviews read like fan mail. Amazing! Brilliant! Barb could get an artichoke published! Barb helped my housecat sell a memoir! I briefly wondered how I’d juggle my deadlines between shuttling to book signings and grooming for televised interviews. I suddenly had an idea for a screenplay! I’d never before considered a foray into film, but nothing seemed unachievable with Barb at my side. Everything I read suggested this woman would take a bullet for her students. Which was far more than I’d ever ask of her. I simply needed Barb to assume all responsibility for my self-esteem and, on bad days, actually write for me.
While grossly exaggerated, her reviews were not exactly untrue. Barb was, indeed, a relentless advocate for the people she felt possessed talent, and had I been one of those people I might be less bitter. By the fourth class Barb still hadn’t committed my first name to memory, and by the sixth she’d begun blowing her nose in lieu of giving me verbal feedback. Where other kids were enthusiastically prodded toward submitting to the New York Times and Washington Post, my stuff was either deemed universally un-publishable or relegated to obscure websites and supermarket circulars. Once, I read the exact same piece two weeks in a row and Barb did not recall having heard it before. And yet she always managed to remember one student’s tale of clinical nymphomania and another’s account of conquering a brain tumor the size of pear. Writing workshops. They’re all the same.
It wasn’t long before I returned to that cobwebbed corner of my psyche; regarding abuse victims as attention seekers and resenting anyone in a wheelchair their impossible good luck. Having established that I could turn in the same story every week completely unnoticed, I stopped doing my homework and spent my free time whining about Barb and her unabashed favoritism. One night, after fuming over a classmate’s unnerving habit of weaseling liver failure into every assignment, I got a call from my dad. My mother had just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and they were scheduling surgery immediately. I never returned to Barb’s class again and spent the next six months dividing my weeks between Texas and New York while my mom pursued treatment.
This would mark the start of my second writing project as the newly minted Communications Director for my mother’s illness. The sheer volume of my parents’ friends is such that they could swing an election. The headcount from their Sunday school class alone would pack a small cinema. We’d have needed a fully staffed call center to field all the inquiries their concern would produce, and it was decided I should send out regular updates on our progress and keep everyone abreast of the situation.
My main editorial directive was that it not be macabre but rather, in my mom’s words, “a fun read”—which is a hefty bounty to place on narratives revolving around twice daily radiation and sinister chemotherapy cocktails. But I followed orders and chronicled the events with an eye toward comedy and a shamelessly biased account of our scrappy heroine, my mom. These emails gained momentum and were forwarded around to people we hadn’t seen in decades, people we barely knew. For both the subject and her biographer, it was a pleasant taste of celebrity. My muse got to be the star of her own episodic novella and I enjoyed the largest readership I will ever have. After an especially fawning installment that suggested my mom was the most winsome cancer patient to ever grace the sterile halls of oncology, she said, “You’ve really nailed me this time. I’d like to see you try some real writing.”
And in any quiet, unobserved moment I could find, I did.
In each of my writing classes, I was the laziest stump at the table. I just sat there vacant and half present, feeling slighted and petulant, wondering when opportunity would shine on me like it had everyone else. Where was my infertility crisis? Where was my iron lung?
I’m happy to report that finally working with the life I actually have (instead of the one I kept hoping someone would magically endow upon me) has been surprisingly satisfying. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I’ve appreciated my dumb job for a couple of significant reasons—this column being the lesser of the two, as distant a second as ever there was.
While my mom was chasing a cure that would always slightly outpace her and then subsequently dying, she was in amounts of pain that I cannot bear to embellish with adjectives. Each night in the dark of her room, I massaged her for an hour as she drifted into sleep. After every attempt at a better ending failed, hospice came in and her discomfort visibly escalated. So I began to work on my mom more and more, for stretches of time that made my wrists burn and my fingers recoil into themselves. And it gave her a measure of respite from an otherwise intolerable state of being. And it gave me a sense of purpose in an otherwise helpless affair. Had an angel of occupational mercy appeared at my bedside and offered to grant me the talent of my choice—anything my heart has ever desired— I would have picked the one I already have. I would have chosen to be really good at giving someone a massage. Never in a million years could I have imagined that possible.
Writing this column and losing my mother are now intertwined in ways that make them acutely inseparable. I have often wished this weren’t so—that the joy of one was not mitigated by the sorrow of the other. But the two in their togetherness have somehow transcended what either could have managed alone. I am left with an unexpected peace about what I already do and an unprecedented faith in what I someday might.
Grief is an individualized process and mine seems to involve a good deal of staring at the television. There’s something gracious about how little that activity asks of you. It was somewhat recently that I caved and subscribed to cable and I’m always struck by how redundant the content is. The same few shows air ad nauseam, until their theme songs haunt your every thought. It used to make me insane, but lately I find solace in watching something I’ve seen before, an odd relief in knowing exactly how things will turn out. There is one program, in particular, that I have viewed so many times I can now quietly mouth the dialogue along with the characters. It’s an hour long documentary about lottery players.
Each participant is true to his stereotype; a scruffy pipe dreamer with a tepid grip on reality and a fistful of scratch off cards. None of these guys have lucrative jobs—they’re all laborers of one variety or another—but they pull off some unlikely budgeting in order to feed their insatiable appetite for lotto. It is my impression that the cutbacks come not from the beer or pornography fund, but rather the Internal Revenue Service and child support. But, whatever the case may be, they display an admirable dose of wherewithal in successfully earmarking hundreds of dollars to spend on tickets. It doesn’t take exceptional math skills to imagine those weekly expenditures as a savings account, multiplying by modest interest, slowly compounding upon itself. And it just slays me anew every time. I watch, riveted, as they reach for that mirage again and again, as they wait with bated breath for someone or something else to make them rich. And all the while they had the makings of a fortune. Right there in the palm of their hands.