The Year of Exceptional Changes

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A writer’s brain looks for meaning.

In the angle at which a bare branch grazes winter’s sky. In the gesticulations of two women catching up over coffee. In moments extraordinary or mundane, the writer digs for answers. And where meaning can’t be found the writer superimposes it with metaphor.

But what of events that defy meaning and budge not an inch to metaphor? What of questions that don’t have answers?

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my brother Rob’s death. His doctors never knew the origin or the cause of his cancer, nor did they really know how to treat it. In our competitive and success-obsessed culture, cancer is supposed to mean battle and rebirth. It’s supposed to end with a ribbon and the well-earned wisdom of surviving. But sometimes cancer just means death.

Long before he was diagnosed, Rob had proven himself a fighter and a survivor. He was quiet, more apt to listen to others’ problems than unload his own, but he had plenty of wisdom to share if you were lucky enough to get it out of him. He noticed the lump on his neck in the spring, when the promise of nature mirrored the promise of his own life. A top score on the GMAT. A niece he would teach tennis to. The perfect girlfriend about to walk into his life.

This is where I come to the questions. Why Rob? Why then?

There are no answers but still I look for meaning. It’s a habit too ingrained to quit.

First, the facts: My daughter was born in October. Six weeks later I moved from Philadelphia to a small town in North Carolina. A week after that my brother went into the hospital and died six weeks later. Back and forth I travelled with an infant, by car, train and plane. In May my husband applied for a job back in Philadelphia and in August he was offered the job. We moved in with my parents until our house, which had been rented out, was free again. I returned to teaching, my daughter turned one, and we experienced the first holiday season without Rob. Now we are about to move back into our Philly house and it is the anniversary of his death.

It was a year of sorrow and of joy, a year in which one family member was lost too soon and a new one was born. In short, it was a year of exceptional changes.

Here is the meaning: I couldn’t have made it through without family and friends. To quote an Ani DiFranco song, “I owe my life to the people that I love.” Friends new and old, family close and distant; so many people brought food, listened, visited, called, and helped that I continue to be humbled by the love and support my parents and I received before and after Rob’s death. Throughout this crazy year I never had to stand alone, not in my grief, not in my fumbling to become a good mother, not in moving, not in my petty complaints or my moments of elation.

And in all of these moments Rob stands with me, too. When I enjoy delicious food, when I try to be a good friend, when I admire my muscles after a workout. Being his sister continues to inform my life. And I am compelled to write about his, to conjure him and make meaning from my brother, who fought and survived and fought again, who never complained about the crappy hand he’d been dealt, whose last words were, “I love you guys.”

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Start Bending Over Backwards for Yourself!

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Today my article “Start Bending Over Backwards for Yourself” appears in The Indie Chicks. I’m excited to be part of a magazine with a mission to inspire women to become “self-empowered, driven, independent, and confident.”

This topic–how to find your voice, believe in your own convictions, and realize you don’t owe anyone anything–is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I’m finally making progress but it’s something I have to remind myself every day. To celebrate the publication of this article, here is a story about the dangers of bending over backwards to please others with your writing.

By the time I went off to earn my MFA in Creative Writing, I had written a first draft of a novel. I had big dreams for this novel, not least of all that I would work on it during my two years in the program, turn in a brilliant final draft as my thesis project, and field offers from agents before the ink was dry on my diploma.

I wasted no time in submitting the first chapter when my turn in workshop came. The following week I received twelve written critiques of my manuscript, including the professor’s. It was a little overwhelming to absorb twelve different takes on one chapter, as well as twelve different sets of suggestions on how it should be changed, but I was eager to get to work and eager to please. I rewrote the chapter to incorporate all of my classmates’ opinions as best I could. Then I submitted the revised chapter to workshop. But the problem with trying to please my readers in a class where critiquing was not optional but homework, was that they were never pleased. Each new revision yielded me twelve new sets of comments.

I’m sure you can imagine what happened to that chapter. It was like a quilt, once thick and purposely patterned, that suffered too many changes until it grew threadbare and asymetrical. In short, I let the workshop run away with my novel. By the time I stopped submitting chapters, I hardly recognized the story I held in my hands.

Having learned this lesson in my first semester, I put my novel away until the following year, when I began a one-on-one “tutorial” with one of my professors. This, I thought, was my golden opportunity. Twelve readers had been too many but one smart and supportive reader would be just what I needed to finish my book. As the fall approached, visions of book contracts once again danced in my head.

Can you guess what happened next? There was no book contract. There wasn’t even a finished novel. After much debate over what kind of people the characters should be and what they should be trying to do with their lives (i.e. the plot), after lots of frantic re-writing as I tried to please my professor, whose suggestions and expectations began to feel like a moving target, he said, “This isn’t my book. I’m not writing it or trying to get it published. I don’t care what happens.” His point, I eventually realized, was that it was my book. I needed to have a vision for it, a vision I was committed to. The ability to receive constructive criticism, to be open to suggestions, isn’t valuable unless it’s accompanied by discernment.

Four years later, I am much more confident in my writing voice and my vision for my stories. Workshops are more useful now that I can take the comments that help me realize the story I intended to write and leave the rest in the recycling bin. “It’s my story” was one of the best lessons I learned in graduate school.