I’ve been throwing little internal temper tantrums lately, most of them while sitting in my office in front of a blank page. I pray and curse (or sometimes a poetic combo of the two) and pull out my hair while scribbling words I already know I’m about to throw away. It’s not pretty but I do it anyways because, in those moments, it seems like the only way forward. I’m not throwing one right now so don’t worry, you’re safe. In this moment I feel calm, controlled, measured, at peace, even. In this moment I’m sitting in my writing room in a quiet and empty house. The air outside is cooler and less oppressive than it has been, signaling a faint hope that Fall might still know how to reach us. Some kind of peripheral music plays on in the background and a candle flickers on my desk just behind my computer. Two different types of incense have already burned and burned out and my coffee mug is drained.
The tantrums are as childish as the word implies and are happening for one reason: I am a beginner again and being a beginner is hard. After a decade long career as a professional photographer, and – can I be honest? – a damn good one in my particular area of expertise, I have decided to become a writer. I have decided to try and write often enough and well enough to be (someday) published. Sure, I have been writing for ages. I could fib and say some worthless, inside-a-book-leaflet shpiel about how I’ve been writing “since I was a little girl.” But I am learning there is a big difference between making sentences and actually crafting those sentences into an order that makes sense and tells a story that matters. That, my friends, is hard effing work. This kind of word-work is new for me, as someone who has squirreled away most of what I’ve written in journals or word docs, hiding it from others and the light of day, allowing my bad writing habits to fester. You can be a shitty writer when the writing is just for you. You can even be a bad writer on a blog. See, I’m doing it right now! But once it’s time to think about putting those words into the hands of a stranger, especially a stranger who just payed some dollars to hear your take on humanity, the stakes are much higher and “shitty first drafts” have no place on library shelves and UPS trucks. Each time I sit down to do this work I realize just how much of a beginner I am, how I’ve gone from expert to novice. And it suuuuucks.
I spent yesterday morning doing some of that good writing work, maybe the most forward-motion kind of work I’ve done in awhile. Something locked into place this past weekend, and for the first time in months, I feel like I might have eyes to see the next ten feet in front of me. Ten feet is all I get. Writing isn’t like skydiving, where, from the plane, the whole landscape is visible from the 12,500 foot jump. After you throw your body out of the moving airplane, gravity pulling you towards the earth’s crust, you see more clear what you already knew existed from above. That has not been my experience of writing. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but writing, to me, feels more like running hurdles. You get five, maybe ten feet of visibility but then, at the end of that five to ten feet, there is a wooden board framed up between two metal poles as high as your belly button. You realize pretty quick the unfortunate reality; you are going to have to jump over this thing in order to keep moving. And there isn’t just one hurdle, there’s a whole Duggar family of them, one after another after another. You wanna write a book? Each chapter is a hurdle and you’re gonna have to clear every single one of them before you can be done.
This is unfortunate for me because I am short. When all the other middle school kids were hitting their growth spurts, I was still “Four foot, four AND A HALF inches,” coming in dead last in every race, 12 to 120 seconds later than everyone else. Hurdles were the most ultimate form of punishment bestowed by the track gods on my small, under-legged body. Lucky me, I also had acne and boobs that were coming in a little early, so I looked like a lopsided pizza that got carried sideways from the Hut to the house. It didn’t matter if I practiced my form or got brand new shoes or ran as fast as I could approaching the dreaded things, I almost always caught the board on the way up or down, I almost always fell. The one thing that kept me moving forward, even when I knew I would come in dead last, was the finish line. There was such energy and possibility waiting there, as well as a hug from my mom or dad and encouragement from the other runners, it kept me going through one failed leap after another.
My track coach decided it wasn’t fair – to me or the hurdles – to keep trying to force us into a monogamous relationship, so he put me into two other events in addition to the hurdles – the 100 and 400 meter dash. That next track meet the air felt thicker than usual because it had rained the night before. The track had dried but drops of rainwater still hung onto the top of each blade of grass on the field. I ran the hurdles at the beginning of the meet, using up all the energy I could muster finishing last, but finishing. Then it was time for the 100. When the gun went off I bolted, pumping my arms, throwing my head back to catch quick inhales while my legs struggled to carry me. Something about the combination of moisture in the air and my sad, already tired little pizza crust legs trying to get along down the track triggered an asthma attack. I crossed the finish line and looked down at my chest as it heaved up and down faster than it ever had before. The surroundings swirled and my legs turned doughy. I grabbed for the air with my fists clutching the top of my jersey but it didn’t seem to be grabbable. I was surrounded fast by a few people giving instructions all at once, “hands above your head..” “bend over and put your head between your legs!” “maybe we should lie her down on the ground.” The event passed in a minute or two, but it felt like an eternity and it scared me. My parents took me to the doctor later that week and I was given a blue plastic inhaler to use if it ever happened again. The track season ended soon after, as did my time at that particular school, and I was happy to never return to either.
I really, really hate hurdles. I thought I was done with all of that, with the teen torture chamber of middle school flailings. I thought I had earned my freedom when I left that spongy black track behind, when I got the “Top Ten Wedding Photographers in the World” award. I thought the struggle of being brand new and sucky at something was done. I’m 37 years old, for crying out loud, I can’t start a new career now, who would do such a thing? Apparently I would. I have chosen to pursue a new career in something that is so incredibly difficult for me, and yet so life-giving, that it’s all I can think about. It’s where the live wire is for me. I want to be doing it on the day I die.
I love writing. I love the power and poetry hidden in a story told well. I love that good stories change things and people, especially the ones telling them. I love that there is a mystical companionship happening between the writer, the page, and the Muse / the Spirit / the Divine that writers have forever acknowledged but not been able to fully understand. I love being a part of that process; the way the wind feels on my face right before I make the horrific jump. I love the big inhale and the challenge of knowing I’m not going to get away with doing this the easy way, but it will be worth it in the end. I love when I surprise even myself and, once in awhile, I clear the hurdle in front of me. Sure, most of the time the next fifteen knock me to the ground and I go home with banged-up red scrapes on my knees and elbows. But lately I’m learning to do what I always did; to get up, grab my plastic inhaler, and keep going because there is a force calling me on down the track. Tantrums and all, there is something about this work I can’t give up on. Not until I’ve cleared all the hurdles. Not until I’ve seen what’s waiting at the finish line.