Posts Tagged ‘Alyson Hagy’

Ever since I moved back to Billings, I’ve taken part-time jobs that I’ve felt would give me the space necessary to write. First, I was a barista, where I was told I could excel just by being myself and smiling. The creators of those trainings knew nothing about people like me.

I spent a year at that place. I wrote like crazy. I had to, or it would have been for nothing—all that pretending my true self was a person who sincerely believed in the transformative properties of the eggnog latte. I walked my neighborhood and beyond it at night, circling the gated communities on the west side of town. I dreamed of a place, possibly in Sweden, where I could exit my ludicrously ugly condo every morning, same as always—but instead of getting in my car, driving out of our complex, down King Avenue and its big-box stores, all the way downtown, I’d walk straight to work through a silent, snowy forest that went on as long as I needed it to, that could freeze time and me in it. I thought I’d be alright if I could have that one small thing.

I’d wondered if it was worth it—forcing myself to do something that didn’t make me happy or anyone else happy for longer than the time it takes to drink an overpriced coffee, just to be a writer. But if there’s anything I know absolutely about myself, it’s that a writer, unfortunately, is what I am. I can’t change that. I tried once and it didn’t take. I’m not saying the world would suffer any great loss if I didn’t write. I would. I’d be lost. I’d have to become a different kind of person, and probably not a better kind.

This is different than saying writing makes me happy. Finding the time to write, even with a part-time job, means I’m constantly staking out writing hours and protecting them from perceived threats—other people, vacations, chores, anything that might steal those precious hours from me once I let my guard down. It’s exhausting, and I’m not sure it’s good for me or people who are sometimes forced to share space with me. I wonder if I’ll always have to defend so fiercely my chance to do the thing I’m best at, the thing that gets me through this life better than anything else I’ve ever known.

While writing makes my life better, it doesn’t make it easier.


The High Plains Bookfest was held in Billings last weekend. My former instructor and always-hero, Alyson Hagy, read at a historic theater alongside writers Pam Houston and Emily Danforth. Sitting there in the dark, I felt moved by their words and by the shock of remembering how much I missed experiences like this one, post-MFA. I read all the time, of course, and I exchange emails with my writer-friends and occasionally share work with them. But there is no substitute for a person standing in front of you. There is no substitute for experiencing the power of language in real-time, in the flesh-and-blood.


These days I work directly with homeless and at-risk youth at a drop-in center downtown, a few blocks away from the Starbucks where I’d mechanically pumped five squirts of syrup in every hot Venti drink, six in the cold ones. My new job requires my investment, my energy, and a limitless, unblemished tundra of patience. No amount of “surrounding myself with white light” on the drive home–as I’d been advised by one of the center’s counselors–makes it easier to hear our clients’ stories or keeps me from thinking about them all the time.

When one of our youth went missing for two weeks after saying he was “going away for awhile,” we checked the inmate list on the county jail website daily. Then we started calling the morgue. Last week he walked in as though nothing had happened. He told me a friend had called him, placed a gun to her head, and fired while he was on the phone with her. He didn’t say where he’d been. He’d found some old friends. He seemed alright. As usual, he forgot to put his bowl in the dishwasher.

It’s an impersonal thing, pain, like a plane that falls from the sky, like a horrible accident that everyone scrambles to explain—pilot error, bird strike, whatever. It makes no difference. No one can stop something like that. The plane falls or it doesn’t fall. The only certainty is that no one’s life is easy.

And too, there is no way to protect people—or oneself—from the forces that have nothing to do with us, that come from somewhere else and without interest or mercy undo us. But we’ve got to believe these forces, bored already, will one day slide past, just keep sliding.

Not long ago—last year—I’d written blogs like this one and felt better having written them. By this point in a typical blog I’d have come to some kind of understanding, something about how writers must be courageous, how deep and unrelenting uncertainty can be a powerful spiritual force, etc. Since then, I’ve started dozens of such blogs, trying to resurrect those old feelings, but end up returning to fiction instead—which, lately, has been the only way I can think about these things with anything approaching clarity or honesty. Though I do hope someday for the ability to write sincerely about my life without descending into blank-minded terror.

I’m afraid of living here forever. Of making tiny compromises that I’ll tell myself won’t matter. Of forgetting what it’s like to be part of a world in which words aren’t just a mere formality — complicated noises that take up space.

It’s a relief—an unexpected one—that very little of any this is up to me. I’ll do what I can. I’ll find ways to keep working. In the next few years, we’ll move to a new town. Like many of my friends, I’ll get a teaching job, if I can. I hope it won’t be so confusing to connect the frayed and wandering threads of myself, that next time it won’t take so long to plunge my hand through the snowbank and find myself where I left me, warm and breathing.

There is no perennial forest outside my door. There is no way to freeze time. But every morning a glacier slides over my bed. Ice crystals grind against my skin, tearing me up. I’ll learn to welcome it. I’ll learn to lie peacefully and wait for the sky to come crashing through the roof.


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