A year ago, I turned 50. A few days before that, I saw a quote on Twitter attributed to Ray Bradbury, the author of Fahrenheit 451. He said, “Write a short story every week for a year. It’s not possible to write 52 bad stories in a row.”
I didn’t see myself as someone who gave herself added challenges, but without thinking much about it, I wrote essay №1 about turning 50 and challenging myself to 50 essays in a year. A year went by and here it is, essay №50.
Writing 50 essays taught me some things. I learned I actually am someone who gives herself challenges. When I was in my mom’s pool with my son, Sebastian, he challenged me to swim the entire length without breathing. I did it, then challenged myself to swim up and back. Around Mother’s Day, I was hired by The National Council of Jewish Women to write and tell the story of the woman who founded the organization 125 years ago. My mom said, “If you’re impersonating Hannah G. Solomon, you know your story.” So, I challenged myself to tell the story without reading it. And sometime, midyear, I remembered that since I was a kid, I’d challenged myself to run a marathon when I turned 50.
I started training for the Miami Marathon, 13 weeks out, which wasn’t enough time. When I shredded my calf muscle, I learned that I have too much confidence in myself physically for my own good, which I already sort of knew. In high school I ran myself into the ground when I wasn’t winning a cross-country race. I woke up in the hospital. The first thing I asked was, “Did I win?”
At week 32, I asked myself why I took on this essay challenge. Sure, I wanted to get better and faster at writing, but something else was going on. I’d finished a book and spent three years revising it with an agent. She sent it out to 12 publishers and it got rejected. Then my agent lost confidence in my book. I sent it out 26 more times. All rejections.
I started this challenge because I needed to do something else for a while. I needed to succeed at something.
There were many weeks I thought for sure I had nothing to say. And there were many weeks I wanted to quit. But I learned to trust the process. I believe in writing to a prompt, which I’ve been doing since I first started taking memoir classes at 28 with Terrie Silverman. I’ve been writing to prompts for 23 years.
Now, I teach a writing class every Wednesday night and I throw out a prompt. The prompt can be anything: A Time You Felt like a Fool, Blood, Last Year I… Sometimes I get self-conscious while I’m writing. But this year, I was able to shut down my sensor and just write like I was talking to my best friend about whatever was on my mind. The stakes were higher than usual because I knew I had to produce something each week, so I don’t know how I became Zen-like. Maybe it’s simply a matter of practice. What happened many weeks in a row was my prompt responses revealed something I wanted to say.
I learned to write faster, which is my own small miracle. I know professional columnists write essays every week and some reporters write stories daily. But I didn’t train as a journalist, so before this year, I could take three months to write one essay. Now I can write one in three days. Even one day, if I have to.
I learned to care less. I care, believe me, I care. I want my essays to be great. I want them to go viral so a million people read them, but I also knew that an essay had to go out every Friday or I’d be a failure in my eyes and that mattered to me more than perfection. Also, I knew that if a week’s essay didn’t get a lot of comments on Facebook or claps on Medium, there’d be another one the next week. I never lowered my standards for writing as best I could, I just lowered my expectations for how each essay would be received. I actually started to wonder if it’s possible to write 50 good essays in a row. I think it is.
I learned that my wife is the most supportive person in the world. Around week 16, Vicky’s sister said something that I interpreted as writing an essay a week is a waste of time.
Vicky said, “Why would you even talk to her about your stories. Would I ask my sister about financial advice? ‘Hey, I have a million-dollar client. I’m thinking about municipal bonds, MLPs, and high dividend paying stocks.’ No, I wouldn’t do that!”
But I had a crisis of confidence. Was I wasting my time? In my essays, I hit on this time-wasting theme six times.
I say this a lot to my writing students: Everyone has their themes.
I wrote about writing 11 times.
I wrote about my parenting mistakes 11 times.
I wrote about age and my fear of being washed up 12 times.
I wrote about politics 26 times.
I got 13 essays published. I made $950, then donated back $400. Medium, the website where I posted my essays, has a payment system based on the number of claps each story receives from paid subscribers. On Medium I made $17. This is not a lucrative business.
I learned that I like what I’m doing. There were so many days this last year, these last 23 years, when I rode my bike (or ran when I wasn’t injured) with a story in my mind and even without knowing it, the story got sorted out a little on that ride. Sometimes I’d stop my bike and email myself a thought. I’d come home drenched and sit down at my computer.
This challenge helped me understand why I write and why I chose to write 50 essays. I love the way I feel when I’m creating something. I feel productive. I feel like a rock star. I feel connected to myself.
I wrote on Twitter, “Writing is a waste of time.” A few hours later, I retweeted, “Writing is time well wasted.”
This year has been a strange contemplation on time. All those weeks I felt washed up, I wanted time to speed up. Let this year end already. But now that it has, I wish time could stand still.
I had a colonoscopy. My wife’s country, Venezuela, had some moments of hope, but continues to suffer. My daughter is about to finish her first year of high school. My son is about to finish 4th grade. My dad got a pacemaker. My brother got cancer. My mom got cancer.
A lot happens in a year.
I can’t control time. I can’t control aging, politics, what my kids do or become. I can’t control whether or not my book gets published. I can’t control success, unless I define it myself. And so I did.
This is the last essay in my #weeklyessaychallenge. I wrote 50 essays in 52 weeks. THANK YOU for reading.