A Hidden Writing Life
Vela / July 2013
For the first time in my life, I have a room of my own in which to write. I also have the precious commodities of solitude and time. I always hoped for these things, but my younger self—the one who moved to New York City at 17 with $300 —had a more romantic image in mind: a Soho loft, a burning cigarette, a fire escape from which to view the city at night. Instead, at 29 years old, I am married to a soldier, living in an extremely conservative Georgia town. The window above my desk looks out at the front of my little brick house, where an American flag—a concession to my husband—flutters, a patriotic display that would have made my 17-year-old self cringe.
When my husband joined the Rangers, a division of the Army’s Special Ops, I knew that eventually I’d have to leave New York City and my job as an editor there; I knew that I’d have to forge a life elsewhere, one that would likely not include coffee shops or great bookstores or a “real” profession. I was OK with this, looking forward even to being free of New York City, a place that still felt like home, but a home from which it was nearing time to escape.
Because life in New York did not turn out to be quite as romantic or free as I imagined: I loved my job as an editor, but, in my last years there, I worked from the moment I woke to the moment I went to sleep, bleary-eyed and heavy with exhaustion. I could never afford a loft in Soho – which turned out to be the equivalent of a giant, open-air mall, the artists long gone by the time I arrived – and I quit smoking when cigarettes reached $10 a pack. I stole moments to write before sunrise, or late on Saturday nights at a cramped table in McNally Jackson’s blessedly wifi-free café, drinking coffee as drunk hipsters streamed by outside. My writing life was a side note, a secret, a kind of mischief I committed when no one was looking. I knew this move would be a gift: For the first time, I could devote a serious chunk of my time to writing, a freedom I’d long stopped imagining as possible.
I comforted myself with this when my husband called me one evening after work to say we were being stationed in Columbus, Georgia, certainly the worst of the three options for Rangers. I was so angry and disappointed, I had to hang up the phone, wandering around the West Village instead of boarding the subway home, the city aglow, my city, a place that had become, for better or worse, an indelible part of who I am. I’d visited Andrew in Columbus for one of his graduations: It’s a city delineated by exit numbers – “I live off Exit 8” – and huge swaths of it are pocked with strip joints, run-down motels, and vacant shop fronts. This is not a literary town, and cultural events are few and far between. But everything is a trade-off, I told myself. You’ll survive just fine.
And I have. But it didn’t occur to me then how isolating it would be to lose my communities: my college and grad school friends, the editors I worked with, the fiction writing group that met once a week in an old professor’s living room. I occupied a world that valued what I am passionate about, and losing that world has been more difficult than I ever thought it would be. The year in New York that my husband was away was a lonely time. In retrospect, these communities were my lifelines, the people who kept me awake and engaged, offered me an identity, allowed me to see my reflection in them. While writing is at the center of my life here in Georgia, it has almost nothing to do with my day-to-day identity. I am, for all intents and purposes, a Ranger wife, and the writing I do each day – well, it is still a kind of mischief, a side note to my role as Army wife.
It’s a strange way to live, my external reality so far from the life of my mind, an uncomfortable dissonance that in some ways is maybe just part of the lonely reality of being an adult. I’m left now to pick up where my communities left off: I must work to keep the dream of writing and its significance from slipping out of my reach, to remember why I do it at all, to keep my gaze trained on it and let nothing distract me – not deployments, or trainings, or Ranger wives calling in the middle of the day: Oh, you’re just writing? I’ll come over. I imagine this is why people earn MFAs and try to find space in the cloistered academic and literary worlds: to be part of a culture that gives a shit about what you spend the better part of your day doing, alone.
Because we’re products of our culture, and right now, I live in a culture of conversations about breastfeeding versus formula, dinner recipes and deployment briefings. It is a culture centered around taking care of others, for in a world in which husbands are constantly, suddenly disappearing, that is what we are all tasked to do. It’s consuming, and I am in awe of the minority of Ranger wives who do juggle children and careers. In this world, writing sometimes feels frivolous and self-involved. More than anything, it feels off-topic, something that’s impossible to insert into conversation at a weekend barbeque. That inevitable New York City dinner party question—the one I grew to hate so much—is startlingly absent from the conversation here: “So, what do you do?” has become “Do you have any little ones yet?” And when I shake my head no, the look of pity begins (for who will distract you from your loneliness when your husband is away?) and the line of questioning stops.
Living in this world sometimes makes me feel as though I am just a woman who hasn’t had kids yet, a woman who is suddenly, terrifyingly behind. “You’re 29? Well, you don’t look that old,” a 20-year-old Ranger wife said to me, sweating and hugely pregnant at a cramped kitchen table during yet another barbeque. The frenetic New York sounds of honking horns and heels hitting the pavement, those noises that remind you you’ve gotta keep up or the city will leave you behind, are slowly being replaced by the loud, echoing tick of my biological clock, the deafening silence of my empty house, my empty nest. Implicit in that question, I hear: If you aren’t raising children, then what have you been doing? Writing seems like such an inadequate reply. I sit typing away at my computer while my eggs are shriveling up.
My writer friends tend to see my new world as grist for writing, and I suppose it is. But this is also my life, not some sociological quest. I am not play-acting the soldier’s wife; my husband is not play-acting deployment; we are not play-acting strained 1 AM phone conversations that are being monitored in Afghanistan. This may be a journey I’m undertaking, but on many days it feels like a destination in which I am stuck: I’ve arrived, and this is it, this is all.
But I am also deeply aware that I’m not exactly me in this equation, at least not during FRG (Family Readiness Group) meetings in conference rooms, spouse retreat talks that are Christian sermons in disguise, weekends of “mandatory fun” where children scamper across the carpet, the men in a silent circle out back chewing tobacco, guns splayed across the table, the women in the kitchen debating the benefits of homemade baby food: a conversation to which I am woefully incapable of contributing. Such gatherings can go on for interminable amounts of time, and I am truly awful at navigating them, unable to interpret the social cues. Is it appropriate to hug the men? Can I sit down with them out back and join in their conversation? Certainly giving Andrew’s boss a kiss hello on the cheek, which would have been customary in NYC, would not fly. Do I ask the wives questions about their lives, or follow their lead, which is to not ask anything at all?
The Army – and this, I’m sure, will be a real shocker – is a lot about fitting in: Wearing the right clothes, having the right values. Tossing around one’s real opinions can be a dangerous activity here, and, so, to a certain extent, we all play-act out of a pressing need to survive; we hide the parts of ourselves that we think may be indecent or suspicious. Writing feels like one of these things, a kind of taboo, a questionable waste of time. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m back in high school, hiding my bad poetry away in my math folder, afraid that people might find out who I actually am.
My husband has to do this on a far more complex, demanding level everyday that he goes to work. The other evening over dinner, he said that he was worried he was losing parts of himself, that, if he returned, he wouldn’t know how to manage the worlds he had once maneuvered so freely: the restaurants and bars where he bartended in Manhattan, the dirty streets of downtown San Francisco, the insanity of life in Beijing, the quaint Maryland campus of St. John’s, the many lives he’s lived.
And, looking at that fluttering American flag out front, I thought: Will the same happen to me? And then: What if it already has?
I don’t know the answer to those questions, but, in asking them, I found another question that surprised me: As long as I have the writing, does it matter?
Because while the title of “writer” is not my identity here, it has become something even more essential to my survival: a safe space which I’ve taught myself to closely guard, a place too precious and too irrelevant to even bring up in conversation. The act of writing requires me to call on as many parts of myself as I can, and it keeps those parts real and alive. This craft requires us, as Emily Rapp writes, to do the simplest and most difficult thing: be a human being. In a way, I’m returning to what writing was for me when I first discovered it as a kid – a method of survival, a refuge to which I can retreat when the world around me feels inhospitable and unkind. I’m remembering why I fell in love with it in the first place.
The act of writing is mostly about being alone. It’s about great inner solitude, as Rilke wrote, “going into oneself for hours meeting no one.” But here in Georgia, it has also turned out to be a powerful antidote for loneliness: it’s the most honest way I know how to connect with the world.
It’s surprising, sometimes, to see who reaches back—not just to my work, but to all the work we publish and edit on Vela. The other day, I was texting with another Ranger wife I am getting to know, and she mentioned out of the blue, “I read everything on Vela. I love it. That one about abortion really hit me hard – I was 19 when I got pregnant with my first, so I related to the tough choice. It made me cry.” I was stunned for a moment. But this is why I first came to writing and why I continue with the practice: It’s a private act with public consequence, and it’s only in that private moment that I can actually figure out what it is I really mean to say. Speech has always felt to me insufficient, and I feel this more than ever in a world where I am so evidently out of place. Writing allows for a deeper, unspoken connection between reader and writer, and why shouldn’t that be the case in this particular community? The act may be done in isolation, but at the end of the day, it lives, very firmly, in all of the worlds out there, literary or otherwise.