In Ann Arbor, I’d been known as “the Alaska guy,” which now felt like a pose. Feeling too Alaska for the MFA book-world had supplanted how much of my life I’d felt too book for Alaska. Maybe that was why I’d been unable to progress on my novel. I’d left this place, after all. Had I ever really loved it, or just the way it let me represent myself?
I learned, in those years, how to write when I did not feel like writing. I learned how to write when inspiration did not come. How to write when every word felt wooden and false. And I learned, also, how to feel guilty on the days when I could not bear to write even a single, shitty sentence.
While working in service I began to feel a bit like Simone Weil, the sheltered, awkward, mystic-intellectual who at twenty-five decided to work in a factory for a year, not out of financial urgency but for political solidarity, as a kind of investigative journalist. It didn’t go well for her. As Czeslaw Milosz wrote, that year “destroyed her youth,” and taught her that such self-sacrificing labor is not noble but in fact degrading, as it required her, just like her less privileged comrades, to wholly give up a sense of self. I told myself I would keep writing no matter what, but after placating the herds, mopping floors, and cleaning toilets, I didn’t always feel inclined.
Even after I decided I wanted to be a writer—a career path that everyone, especially my parents, agreed was nebulous at best—I eventually saw how one could become a “successful” writer. Get into an MFA program, get published in a literary journal, get an agent, sell a novel, win a prize maybe, and, obviously get writing. I don’t think I’m alone in this way of thinking. I think we all, generally, have some idea of the signifiers of success.
Here’s a possibility: as writers, we have more of the one truly non-renewable resource in the world—time. And I’m not just talking about quantitative, chronological time. When we sit down in solitude and think about life, we extend life. When we read about the different permutations in which lives have been led, or when we contemplate life in our own writing—time is stretched, warped, mutated, created anew.