After four months teaching overseas at Harlaxton College, I arrived home to the Midwest just in time for Christmas. I injured my shoulder days before boarding the plane. I felt like a broken bird, and I couldn’t bear to be home yet. When I stood inside the front doorway, everything looked small, as if, like Alice, I’d grown.
I stumbled up the stairway, tripped when I sat at the kitchen table. The scattered carpets and wooden floors looked impossibly far away.
After two nights, my family and I visited relatives in St. Louis and New Orleans, and I attended a lovely writer’s festival. Finally, almost two weeks later, my aching shoulder and my husband convinced me it was time to go home for real. So I did. And then came the rain. And the ice. Followed by the vortex. I sat on the pink sofa across from the fireplace and scrolled through photos, read through journal entries and flitted from room to room, lost. I’d look at my husband and my son and try to remember things I used to know. I drove to the grocery store and lost my way, my car somehow funneled onto a highway in the wrong direction until I could turn it around and find my way back.
I didn’t know it would be so hard to return. If I’d been in a car accident, it could all be explained away. Someone could reassure me. Oh, it’ll just take time. You’ll heal. You’ll get better. And I am. Getting better, that is. If getting better means not feeling quite so lost. But I also feel like I’m losing something of myself, the ‘elixir’ Joseph Campbell says is so hard to bring home after the journey without watching it turn to ash in your hands.
My new semester started three days ago. I’ve met new students. I’ve reconnected with old students and colleagues. It helps. They missed me, and now that I see their smiling faces in front of me, I remember that I missed them, too. Being gone last semester was like summer camp–I made new best friends and discovered things about myself I never knew, or that I’d forgotten. How to hold onto those friends so far away, the ‘me’ they helped unearth, and yet be here, be with these lovely people at home?
One consolation is writing. Every day. My little black book. This one is almost full, and the next one waiting on my shelf is orange. I tried some new things with writing the last four months; I experimented. I read a lot, and I read a lot about writing. For the record, here’s some of what I learned (or remembered) about how to be a good writer.
You need a room of your own, a la Virginia Woolf. As my friends Holly Kent and Kelly Holland call it, you need a third space. Not work, not home, but a space that’s yours. For me, it’s not just physical space, but also mental space. I need to occupy the space in my head, not let others intrude.
You need advocates. One of my students last semester gave me a thank you card. Part of what she thanked me for was giving her the permission to write, advocating for her writer ‘self’ to come out and say something.
Some other strategies that help get (or keep) my writing going: noun lists, a la Ray Bradbury. Reminders to make good art, a la Neil Gaiman. Eradication of thought verbs, a la Chuck Pahlaniuk. ‘Conversations’ with my characters (I ask questions through my dominant hand, the character or story answers through my non-dominant hand). Timed writing, drawing images of scenes I want to write, and remembering to not be a wimp (thanks, Heather Sellers). Ready recall of the five components of scene-building (thanks, Mike Kardos). Seeing my life and my writing as a hero’s journey (thanks, Joseph Campbell). Walking–let the mind and eyes rest. Openness and curiosity–look and write down what you see. Listen to the voices of others–let them help you edit your work (thanks, new UK friends).
Summer camp comes with a soundtrack, right? Here’s my new favorite, George Ezra. He’s singing, with a friend, about coming home.