I collect their x-rays because I like to keep a record of the bones I break.
My way in is always through a line. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first line — it just needs to be a line. A point of entry. Me elbowing my way in. Surveying the landscape, I consider the options. Do I want to be in the company of these people? With novels, you can’t just linger. You have to build a home around it, brick by brick. The bricks become a wall that becomes a room that becomes a place where you can take off your shoes, rub the ache from your feet, and set down the weight you’ve been carrying. A weight that bores so deep in your back that it nearly becomes you, but before the becoming, you look around your new home, the people that walk in and out of it, and you wonder if you can bear it. If you can stay a while.
Poems are one-night stands in cheap motels that sell Twix in vending machines. Short stories are summer flings in rented homes that smell of strangers, salt, and fresh cotton, but the novel, the fucking novel, is the first blush of a honeymoon that morphs into a settling that invariably becomes the minor compromises you make in service of a shared life. The novel is two toothbrushes in a tin cup. It’s can you just do the dishes for once? It’s two bodies taking up lovemaking like cross stitch, and it’s the uncomfortable silences that stretch from room to room in those moments when you wonder how it is that you got where you are and do you get out of it. Or do you linger?
This is the novel. Can you love it? Can you commit to it? Can you marry it?
I’ve written books worth shredding. I’ve published two books that have made me proud. But both were a bloodletting. My memoir took me a decade to write properly before I sold it, and now I look at it and wish I’d written now the story I wrote then because it would be so much different. It wouldn’t be a book about a woman who held on to her anger so hard. It would be a book about how I loved and didn’t love my mother, and how I’ll forever negotiate the space between the two. My first book garnered some modest noise, coverage in Vanity Fair, NPR, USA Today, EW, Elle, among others, but it would take me nearly a decade to publish my sophomore effort.
If someone tells you that in order to be a writer you have to write every day, please poke them with sharp objects. Preferably protractors. There is no one way to be a writer. I’m 43 and I’ve been writing since I was six, and even when I’m not putting thought to type, I’m writing.
But let’s get technical for a moment. Between 2009 and 2013, I composed emails (so many you wouldn’t believe), pitch decks, marketing plans, brand strategies, and performance reviews. I barely slept much less wrote a story. And when would I have the time for a one-nighter or fling, much less a marriage if the whole of my life was committed to a barnacle, a work that was draining the life right out of me?
Six years ago, I resigned from a job that had been slowly killing me. The first week, I slept. The second, I cried. The third I boarded a plane that took me to France, Italy, and Spain. I needed to put an ocean between myself and New York. I craved the clarity that only quiet and space could breed.
It was off-season in Biarritz, a sleepy town near Basque country known for high tides and smart surf. But in April the rain wiped it clean. I ate cold hamburgers in tiny restaurants. I pulled apart chunks of bread with my hands. I stood in front of towering rocks that dotted the shoreline and stared at the barnacles that covered them. Back at the motel, there were two channels on the television set — French news and French news.
And then a torrent. A line that was a paragraph that was a page that was seventy in one week. It was blackout writing. Four years without a story, without sound, and here I was writing a scene about a woman in a hotel with her hair on fire. The cadence of the writing was foreign to me, the voice uncomfortably confident and assured. This story was not the Felicia I knew. It was unlike anything I had ever written. It was something other. It was the other side of the quivering voice that was my first book, written in my late 20s.
I never wanted a community of writers — I needed readers. When I got back to New York, I wrote to my friend K: I think I’m writing a novel or something that resembles it. Can you read the mess I made?
I wrote only to K because she’s known me since 2000, my Columbia days. She’s tough, and she sets the bar above the sky. She had fair criticism of my first book when it was published. I was too scared to go to the places I wanted to go, she’d said. And she was right. I was a colt on new legs, frightened to run. I sent 70 pages to K because only she could tell me if I was running.
I remember precisely the moment in June when she wrote me back. I was still living in New York and was catching a subway between meetings in Flatiron. I remember climbing the stairs and scrolling through my inbox and I saw her note. It put my heart on pause and I burst into tears in the middle of Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t stop crying. It was as if the volume on the world had turned up. I felt everything because somebody I loved and respected got it, got me. She wrote (excerpted):
For the next two years, I sent her drafts to which she responded: Keep going. She told me that she’d be the hot poker pressed against my back because I had finally — at nearly 40 — found my voice. And regardless of what happened with this book, I knew I had finally written something substantial that wasn’t about my mother.
The book was a hard sell. Editors who were familiar with my work thought it was too dark, too severe. Does she have anything lighter? (Yeah, sure, back pocket) Some couldn’t believe that a woman could be a calculating and cold serial killer. Can we see her next book? Finally, Jennifer Baumgardner at Feminist Press called me a month before I was set to move in Los Angeles and we talked about the book, some ideas she had for edits, and did I want to be part of the FP family? Another heart-stopping moment in the middle of the street. Only this was in Carroll Gardens and I jumped up and down with a phone in my hands and an editor still on the line.
I’m proud of that book and the reviews it received, even though it didn’t sell as much as I wanted.
Then I started a new book, fell into a dark depression, contemplated suicide, was called off the ledge by friends and a psychiatrist, medicated, therapied, and I deleted the book B.D. (before depression), wrote a new one, fought with my agent who thought it was a mess (he was right — it was a mess), and could I write a lighter, commercial book? An easy sell?
I’m not in this for easy.
We parted ways. I started a business. I wrote personal essays and brand tutorials on Medium, which were fairly easy to write. I even started a new book but decided 100 pages in that I wanted an annulment. I plotted my way into a narrative prison, and I hadn’t the love or strength for these characters to claw my way out. I wanted a clean break. Select all. Delete.
There exists no theatrics in the process of writing. I’ve never used the word “muse.” I don’t write every day — I’ve never been that writer. I eschew community in favor of a small group of trusted readers. To me, the process isn’t about performance, it’s about sustenance. It’s like eating, breathing, walking, fucking, loving, shitting, crying, sitting, sleeping. I write like I breathe like I love like I hurt, and I never defined the act of writing beyond basic states of being.
A few months ago, I was writing a personal essay structured in movements. One, in particular, was a sharp departure from the rest of the piece, and my Human Parts editor suggested that I had something more there. That something could be a book — maybe? I shrugged it off at the time and focused on that which has consumed my life this year — earning money, making a living, getting out of debt. I wake to work. I get up in the middle of the night to check on wire payments and bank transfers. I fall asleep to the state taxes I have yet to pay. The IRS letters piled neatly on my countertop.
People will sell you on the beautiful lie that you can write your novel a little each day, but what if that day is mired in crippling anxiety, the emails you have to send requesting payment, and the anger you feel because you’ve done all the right things. You don’t shop. You cook at home. You own only that which you need. You live a small, quiet life that demands you learn how to breathe underwater.
The debt is the anchor that pulls you down deep.
So, sure. Brew me my hot fair-trade coffee in an Anthropologie mug. There’s me typing away — hair bunned, body swathed in soft knits. Perhaps there’s a pen logged somewhere in my hair. Glasses crooked. Work can wait. Why not?
Because work can’t wait.
The movement became a story I started writing in my head on the way to the way to the market, the post office, and riding in the car with my friend Monica. Today, I tell my friend the shape of the story — it’s the darkest kind of comedy — down to some of the peripheral characters. I’m talking to her like I’ve just fallen in love. Exhaled. Allowed all the mothballs inside me to flutter out. It’s that three-month mark where you know this might be something more than texts and tepid sex. It’s that feeling when I look at a man and tell him that he’s home to me. It’s me inching the door open, letting him creep in. It’s like that.
On the drive home, something in me turns. It’s harder to breathe. Colors dull. Voices pale down to a murmur, a drone, a state of waking sleep. I check my phone awaiting the large payment that will clear rent for the next few months, dental bills, tax bills, all the bills, and until then I can’t write. Not the way I want to. Not the way I need to. And it feels as if my life has always been a series of work to pay bills, work to eat, work to sleep, punctuated by moments when I can actually love, feast, feel, taste, hear, and breathe.
I sit here with a phone in one hand a brick in the other. I want to break the phone, build the house, and write my way back to breathing above water.