June 11th, 2012 - Sara Lippmann
The year finds me in a string of years on the verge of giving up. Ten years out of grad school with little to show for myself. What am I doing? I’ve gotten married, joined the academic trench known as English Comp, driven to Texas and moved back to Brooklyn. I’ve become a mother. I have two kids with big, sloppy personalities and enormous hearts, and no childcare. I feel pregnant all the time.
In 2012, my babies are six and four. Life is a rhythm of school drop off and pick up, of grocery shopping and feeding and cleaning. The days are impossibly short and interminably long. My bylines include a handful of short stories and a couple of service pieces for American Baby, but mostly I’ve proven myself a great abandoner: two novels, a linked collection that had been my graduate thesis. The piece I am most proud of is an essay on death.
Dreams of writing feel reckless, wildly impractical, certainly empty of financial promise, in a time when making ends meet ranks paramount. Who am I to hang my hope on this thing called art when there is a mortgage to maintain?
It is during this time I discover flash fiction, which becomes a saving grace. The form is conducive to my fractured mind. Small things keep me together. If I can’t read a novel, I can go online. I can read and re-read the stories of Peter Orner, Roxane Gay, Kathy Fish.
That fall my friend Rebecca forwards me the grant application for the New York Foundation for the Arts. I squirrel it away. The notion of applying feels absurd. I’m a loser, baby. Regular rejections are tough enough.
One late night in December a child wakes so now I’m up, too, restless with gnawing. I open my laptop. The application is due at midnight. In a mad dash of desperation, of want, of some fuck-all YOLO, I cobble together a writing sample and knock out an artist statement filthy with ambition, with unvarnished desire (how I wish I’d saved it!) then smash the send button at 11:53 pm and all but forget about it. What’s one sleepless night in a stretch of sleepless nights?
The email comes that day in June. NYFA is going to award me $7000 – simply, to keep doing what I am doing. It feels like a hoax. I’ve never even won a fish raffled off at the Purim carnival. There is disbelief followed by ugly sobs that make my kids leave their Legos to comfort me. They are used to seeing me sad.
To be clear, the fellowship does not change my life. Life continues to be a road ridden with detours, pocked with holes. But on that day, when I can barely see a way forward, it becomes a guiding light. It is enough, more than enough. A validation that I am on the right path no matter how bumpy it is.
I wish I were a writer with strong enough self-conviction that I did not need outside approval. But I’m not. I can toil in isolation, but occasionally, I need a bone. NYFA delivered. The bone clocked me on the head. You and your self-pity, it said. Get over yourself and get to work.
In the ten years since, I’ve put out two books of stories. My debut novel is coming out this fall. An anthology I’m coediting just found a great academic home. Rejection has been relentless along the way. To be a writer is to constantly feel bonked in the nose by a nerf ball. If not one humiliation than another. We are gluttons for punishment. Masochists, all of us.
I wish I could say it gets easier, but it just keeps on. Nothing matters yet we do it anyway. Ten years later and I’m teaching more than ever. Not because I have any wisdom to impart but because I am in the dugout, too. I’m teaching novel writing, which feels particularly misguided considering how goddamn long it took me to write one. I’ve built a small editing business. When we fight over money – I still don’t make enough – my husband braces himself for a rant on art and marketplace and motherhood and the capitalistic insistence to quantify it all.
What is the cost of raising kids? The cost of telling stories? Just because the market fails to support these things does not mean they are worthless. See, the need for external validation can be a real mind fuck. If we buy into it, it will bite us in the ass.
That 7K from the New York Foundation for the Arts buys me a new computer. It sends me to AWP and enables me to launch a website, and with the remainder, I take a couple of classes at the 92nd Street Y with Meg Wolitzer. Small steps. Little faith. Still, faith falters.
Maybe that’s where imperative comes from – our flirtation with the edge. Maybe we need to feel that risk, like we are on the verge, tittering precariously close to despair. To feel ridiculous, reckless, even frivolous in our pursuits. Let me be clear: my NYFA does not feed my family. I acknowledge and am grateful for the immense privilege of not having to shoulder that burden. Maybe this makes me selfish. But I wouldn’t be half the person (or mother or wife or daughter or friend) I am without writing in my life.
Ten years ago, I call my friend Amy. She is living in the apartment upstairs at the time, so she comes down, arms full of prosecco, seltzer, a bottle of St. Germain. While I blow my nose, she mixes ingredients into a pitcher, curls off grapefruit rind for garnish. She, too, is on the verge of leaving one story and starting another. Somewhere it’s already five. We fill flutes and clink. Our drinks fizz, their taste sweet.
Sara Lippmann is the author of the story collections Doll Palace re-released by 713 Books, and Jerks from Mason Jar Press. Her work has been honored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, and has appeared in The Millions, The Washington Post, Best Small Fictions, Epiphany, Split Lip and elsewhere. She teaches with Jericho Writers and lives with her family in Brooklyn. Her debut novel, LECH, will be published by Tortoise Books this fall. For more, visit saralippmann.com
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