Friday, February 1, 2013

what's the matter?

i've been using my fridays in january as writing days. holidays done, no time-sensitive lists to check off, so there are no excuses not to get back at it. (though i write for a living, this kind of writing i do for my life.)

for three fridays in the past month i actually did. write. i've gone through the umpteenth revision of that novel i have been working on for so long it is now a period piece. but on this friday so far, i have ordered a couple of things online, checked FB for updates, read my daughter's blog, responded to 12 emails, made two phone calls and served my dog a piece of cheese, all the while hearing this tiny inner whine: why are you wasting time?

is the fact that february is here an excuse?

there were many days in the past 35 years when it like felt writing was wasting time. it didn't seem to matter to anyone but me, really.

writers, though, are vain people. we want to be read. so i kept at it, thinking one day somebody would read something i had written, and it would matter to them. i did get a job as a writer, eventually. so though it never really paid my rent, that was something.

as a working writer, i've had my share of articles published, some mattering more than others. i once wrote a story for my college alumni magazine for the anniversary of the nursing school there, and i stumbled on a vocal administrator who revealed the true story in nursing at that time: that every hospital in the country was short many nurses, which endangered patients. a dear nurse-friend agreed to be interviewed about how this heretofore undocumented nursing shortage affected her job, and she almost lost that job because her employer didn't want that particular story told. we rewrote the lede using her story but not her name, and after the piece ran in the alumni magazine, stories about the shortage showed up in newspapers and magazines all over the place.

in the late 90s i wrote a newspaper article about one of my favorite places and soon  began researching a book that led to actually writing one* (and finishing it), which led to a tiny little book tour. i felt pretty much like cinderella the summer the book came out, people showing up to see me. finally, i had the kindergarten storyteller's stool again. it had been a very long wait.

that year, i also reached another goal: my words showed up once a month in the paper i had dreamed of writing for for years. my assignment was to write my life down — something i had been doing pretty much all my life, but now, well, a little over hundred thousand people might actually read my words. and i'd get a check for a couple of dollars to boot. i had been working toward this particular goal for years, finding one editor who loved my work, another who said essays didn't matter to people reading the daily news. so when yet another called and asked me to submit one for consideration for a new column in the works, i thought finally, this will matter to someone besides me.


my first story ran on Feb. 13, 2001, and i (sort of) made fun of my husband — who dislikes Valentine's Day with a passion — and revealed that my favorite flower is the bachelor's button. i shared the foibles of his attempts on our first Valentine's Day to find a bloom you can't find anywhere in the middle of winter. special order only.

late that afternoon when i went to check the mail, i found a giant silk version of my favorite stem stuck in the ground next to the front stoop. as secret admirer perhaps? (it serves as the background for this blog.) proof that at least one person had read my little story.

the next 17 months of columns would take me through college applications and acceptances, a daughter's leave-taking and a son's guitar picking. a 20th anniversary & my parent's 50th. my husband's sailboat and an accident that claimed the life of one of my daughter's classmates, all served as fodder for the story of my life. 9/11 begat two columns — one, me trying to cling to some sense of normal by chronicling the years of my daily walk, the other, at Christmas, when i just didn't feel like doing Christmas at all.

by then i was receiving emails from readers, sometimes more than a dozen if particular words hit their mark. the Christmas column garnered one angry reader, who said my job was to make light of life, not to remind readers of how dark it sometimes is. another said i was depressed and needed medication. a few thanked me for articulating their post 9/11 feelings. somehow my story became everybody else's.

you never know, when put yourself out there, how people will take you.

when i wanted to write about my book being published, my querulous** editor said it would be self-serving. i asked her how, if i was supposed to write about my life could i not touch on finally reaching a life-long goal? she relented, and the story became not so much about the book as my life as an essay writer living in a family who doesn't really care for their lives being lived out on paper. 

what i thought would be the pinnacle of my writing career ended the week the Pea left for college. after 18 months, the column was gone.

"what they don't tell you about babies is that they leave," i wrote then... "right from the minute they're born, they are leaving you. you're ready, of course, because your toes are swollen, their knees crowding your rib cage and you say, if only they would go ahead and come out. and then they do and you say, oh, i didn't realize. didn't realize... that soon enough they'll learn to walk without holding your hand, put on a shirt by themselves even if it's the wrong color, draw out their ABCs in large blocks. later they will learn Algebra, which you never could do, and spell words like plethora, which you can. and while they're learning all these things, they're looking into your eyes, saying 'i will never leave you,' and they are lying. and you didn't realize when you look back and say, 'don't ever leave,' you're lying, too." *

i wrote those words quickly in 2002, not even thinking about them except that i had to get them out of my head or else i would break apart. i was upset that my child was leaving and that a lifelong passion was as fleeting a raising a child seemed to be at that moment. i wasn't thinking about who might read my words, or how my feelings might affect someone else's (except maybe the Pea, that she would say, awww, (lying) i really wish i could stay with you.)

no. i was just being selfish. 

i certainly never expected that i would almost forget i even wrote those words and then 11 years later, would pick up my phone at my day job and the caller would tell me exactly how my words had changed her. 

but that's what happened. a work call one morning this week about an event i'm helping plan, from a young correspondent for the same newspaper where my words once appeared. at the end of fact-checking, she said: i sent you an email — me fully expecting her to follow with: weeks ago, but you never answered — but instead she said: years ago, when you wrote a story about your daughter and how you couldn't wait for her be born and that spoke to me.

so much so, in fact, that she emailed me to say thank you. and that she was a young mom at the time who dreamed of being a writer. like me. 

like me

i had been that girl, 30 years ago.

though i don't remember it, i had written her back an encouraging email which she had saved all these years and now she is one. a writer. for several online publications. her 3-year-old is now 12. and doesn't want her mother writing stories about her anymore.

and here i have been thinking these past weeks that i am just to the light side of awful. 

i probably don't need to tell you that a choke took hold in my throat right then, and the tears swelled at the edges of my eyes. and all i could say was thank you. you have changed me with this call. (when i confessed that i don't read her column about being a mom, she said: that's ok, you're old. (old?) 

well, yes, i guess i am. 

'all the stories are written,' she said of her column, which she is thinking of ending, but i say no. hardly. new stories come around every single day, stories of you, with those around you as supporting cast. you just have to start.

later, i shared all this with the Pea. i know how her daughter feels, she said.

mattering matters. whether we are writers or weeders, caregivers or takers, loafers or sprinters, makers or menders, swimmers or water-treaders. all of us want to believe that somehow the ripples we leave even as we tread that water badly sometimes, will mean something good to our little corner.

it is a rare day when we find out that yes, they do. 

so i keep at it, treading through my day, weeding and weaving the stories, about the Pea and her brother, the Skipper and the dog who loves cheese, hoping that as i put one word after another, the story laid there will matter, if just to me.

now... back to that book.

* (the next year i self-published a collection of essays, ahead of my time apparently... and ever the poor marketer, i am now practically giving them away.if you'd like a copy of either book, contact me. both books are now out of print! 
 ** i could probably use her now, though i hate to admit that.
writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.