Monday, February 13, 2012

Open Letter to the Drunk Writing Student who Asked my Husband if He's Jealous of my Success.

NOTE: This was long enough ago that none of my current writing students can start pointing fingers; in fact, I've taught writing students for many years before I landed where I presently teach so ... Too, it's something that's been asked -- one way or another -- by more than just this drunk student. (This is the incident that I recall the most vividly because it was so, well, direct.) And not that it deserves an answer, but I'll give one anyway because I've been thinking about it for a while.

Dear Drunk Writing Student who Asked my Husband if he's Jealous of my Success:

Okay, I remember where we were standing and in which kitchen -- though it's been years. It was that kind of moment. It was a party. For what occasion? No idea. But this writing student had us both here, and she must have just learned that Dave and I met in grad school; he was an aspiring poet and I was studying in fiction. The woman was drunk and so also a little loud. She was also tall and so I felt particularly loomed over, not unusual for me. She must have asked if Dave was still publishing and his answer must have been no, which was the truth. And then she blurted it out, "Aren't you jealous of Julianna because she's had so much success in writing and you haven't?" Now, that's in quotes, but I don't know that the quotes are honest. It was something like that -- very pointed.

Dave said what has become a standard response to the question -- which is always dressed-up a lot nicer than at this moment. "If you saw how hard she worked, day in and day out, you'd know it's not possible to be jealous of her. She earns it."

There's another response though. One that only Dave and I have ever talked about privately. And I'll get to that in a minute.

First of all I believe that researchers will find a snippet of our DNA that is specifically reserved for jealousy. My husband's will be clean -- well, or nearly so. He doesn't particularly care for certain male writer types and/or old boyfriends. (He is, I should add, completely fine with co-authors I've written racy books with and with whom I feud sometimes openly, but also eventually work things out with. See Fig. 1: Almond, Steve.) Dave has a younger brother who went onto Princeton, like their Pop, and I've asked him if this younger brother was seen as a golden prodigy, the beloved son, and was he ever jealous? His answer, "What? Golden prodigy? That's funny. No. It didn't really cross my mind."

So the jealous gene in him is not strong to begin with.

But did he have reason to be? Yes. Dave taught me how to write poetry. The house was filled with his books of poems. After I had my second child, I urged him to write a poem about a woman in labor who's thinking of all the depictions of the manger scenes and feels betrayed. He said, "I think that's your poem to write." Eventually, I wrote it. And then I dug through his books. I went through a frenzied year dedicated to poetry -- taking out the 10 books at a time limit from the University of Delaware, near our home -- and burrowed deep. He read the poems. He was the first. I told him that they weren't poems; they were chunks. He said, "Hit return a few times more times and these are poems."

I sent poems out and they started getting published. It seemed unfair, but Dave -- who'd published some poems of his own by then -- never saw it that way.

And then he started a novel. A beautiful brutal novel called THE VICIOUS SEASON. He got great blurbs. Ernest Hebert nominated it for a PEN Discover and it won. He got an agent. Two editors loved it. But neither could take it on. One wanted another book first.

I'd shouldered The Vicious Season with him. I read and noted and reread and jotted. I watched someone learn to write a novel. It was an incredible thing to see. (The difference between being in labor and watching -- the watching is stunning in a way that the laborer can't quite imagine -- too deep inside their own body. And I don't use this metaphor lightly because I generally hate birthing metaphors applied to books.) Dave started and stalled on his next novel. We talked about overhauling the one in hand. In fact, a few times a year, I bring up new ways of re-envisioning The Vicious Season.

But Dave isn't all that interested. Why? This is the reason I've been getting to -- because by the time he was at work writing his first novel, I was already publishing them and the dream was broken.

How can publishing a novel BREAK a dream? Because a dream made real breaks in the process. It's real. It's hard. Publishing is, in fact, brutal. Going public with your work -- and his novel had a personal bent to it -- is painful. Letting people into your head, your heart, your view -- all those words on the page to be misunderstood... It's something he saw me go through -- firsthand. And I didn't do gracefully. (I still don't do it gracefully.)

And the thing about being in love is that when the person you love is going through something that you can't control, you feel it sometimes more deeply. For a while, I stopped celebrating success because I'd told myself I was no longer allowed to take failures personally. I stopped taking everything personally. I'm still pretty austere about the business. What did we do on pub day for PURE? Ate dinner, vacuumed, helped kids with homework -- and tried not to throw up with anxiety. Is that the publishing dream? Not really.

My confession here is what I've confessed to Dave. That I made publishing look so hard -- elation, defeat, resignation, elbows-out protection of my work, my head, my heart ... All of that. He witnessed and said, No thank you. If that's the reward for gutting out a novel, I'll pass.

But he'd say no. He'd say he didn't have it in him. He'd say that he saw what it took, he saw my fevered self, my need to write, to get it out. He's told me what he'd tell that drunk writing student now. "You think you're a writer. But you don't know what obsession looks like."

In an essay that we wrote together about a miscarriage early in our marriage, he wrote this,

"And after, how you tore into your first novel, a beautiful frenzy. You wrote and wrote. And I kept saying, “Write, write,” and I watched you at the door to your office lost in it, and I wanted to come in, and I wanted to leave you alone. Your metaphor was drowning, and I wanted to wrap you in the yellow flotation jacket and bring you back up, through the murk. But I’m certain it was clear at the bottom. So I left you to it... I try to hold you up as much as I can. I want to take these losses away from you. I want to be a thief, with a specialty in loss, and one who refuses to give anything back, even when caught red-handed. Don’t make me give them back – even though you will want them, even though you’ll beg."

This kills me, not only because it's about this time in our lives where we were bound by our grief, not only also because he understands my need to write, deeply. But mainly because the man can write. Damn, can he write!

I sent him this to read before posting. He wrote me an email back -- even though we're just now on different floors of the same house. At the end he said, "Stay down, do what you are great at. Come up, I'm lonely and I can't stand to see you suffering any more."

And so, Drunk Writing Student, do you love the suffering of writing?

Do you really want the truth? Here it is: Maybe you asked the wrong person.

Sometimes I'm jealous of Dave because he's free of it. And sometimes I'm struck with guilt because I couldn't do for him what he did for me. Sometimes I just wish there was more of his words in this hard world.

So there's your answer, sweetheart. Go forth and be a writer. Go forth and fall in love. Go forth and try to survive.

Julianna Baggott

P.S. And go buy a copy of HARRIET WOLF'S 7TH BOOK OF WONDERS, for the love of all things holy.