Today, I was going to submit a brilliantly-penned nonfiction essay to the Columbia Literary Journal’s writing contest. Then, Cheryl Strayed was going to read it. Maybe she would like it, or maybe she wouldn’t; the main thing was that she, one of my most adored role models, would read at least a sentence or two. Then, my essay would win. Or it wouldn’t. Whether or not it won wasn’t very important to me. What mattered was that I would have written it and that Cheryl would have read it, Cheryl who came to Chicago a couple of years ago and read parts of her book and that heart-sparking Dear Sugar column until I wept.
I’ve been planning to write a memoir of my time in France ever since I left, and while I’ve skirted the subject in pieces that I’ve written here and in other publications, I’ve never sat down and written about the hows and the whys and the whens. So, when I found out about this contest, I decided that this would be the time. Finally, I’d have an excuse to sit down and pour everything from that time onto the page.
I spent a couple of weeks stewing in my memories and a couple of weeks trying to write a few pages, and almost immediately ran into trouble. I found myself writing the first page over and over, until I had about twenty pages of the same content, written in slightly different ways. I’d start writing and suddenly need to nap or eat a bag of chips or take a walk far away from notebook and computer. I tried everything I could think of: free-writing, diagramming, planning, writing about something else, not caring, showering, not thinking about it, reading, anything I could think of to push past the knot in my throat that wouldn’t let me get the words out.
The more I thought about it, and the more I tried to write, the more it hurt. I felt like I had traveled back to all those years that I protected myself from experiencing abandonment and heartache, just so I could allow myself to feel them. I’d try to breathe through those moments or write through them but the deeper I got, the more claustrophobic I felt. I didn’t feel saved. I didn’t feel liberated. I felt worse and worse about myself, and about my experience, until I reached an evening when I spent a few hours panicking. I called Jens in a fit of sobs and told him that I absolutely could not write about it.
"That’s an important discovery," he said. He also told me that if nothing else, the experience of trying to write about it and not being able to was something essential. He was right — I’ve always thought that there was nothing that I couldn’t figure out in writing, but it turns out that there are things you’ve got to work out with time and distance before you work them out on paper.
I’m a little bit afraid that I will misplace the memories I need to write it, that the farther I get away from those years, the more foggy and unimportant they will seem to me as I fill my life with other experiences and memories. I’m also afraid of who I became while I was trying to write it — a girl who embodied the same kind of insecurity and depression that characterized me during those years. Will I ever be able to remember and write it with grace?
Today, I’m going to try to forgive myself for having empty hands. I’m going to breathe through the idea that Cheryl Strayed isn’t going to read any essay of mine. I’m going to take this thing, whatever it is, that I’ve learned and keep writing, even though I’m scared, even though I’m not sure what’s next.