Write Those Essays: On Letting Go of Limiting Yourself
July 30, 2021 § 20 Comments
By Susan Barr-Toman
Four years ago, I attended an author event for Martha Cooley’s Guesswork: A Reckoning with Loss. At the time I was stuck. I was a novelist, who couldn’t make stuff up anymore. Years before I’d studied fiction in grad school and had workshopped with Cooley. Back then, I was adamant about being a fiction writer, who did not rely on autobiographical material to create, having no interest in writing about my life.
At the reading, Cooley spoke how she’d lost eight friends in a decade. Her elderly mother had been in ill health back in the States, while she was in Italy working on translations with her husband Antonio Romani and trying to make progress on a novel. But her loss would not be ignored, and she began journaling. Her novel languished in the corner as essays came forth demanding her attention.
I caught up with Cooley afterwards and told her I found myself in a similar situation – my novel writing having halted and only essays arriving. She told me to write what was coming for me now. The novel will wait, she assured me. “Write those essays!”
I remember the novelist Elizabeth McCracken coming to give a talk at Temple University in 2008. For the first time she had written a memoir. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is about her two pregnancies: the first stillborn and a year later a healthy child. She said she never thought she’d write nonfiction, but then she didn’t have anything to write about. Until she did.
I remember thinking, I hope I never have anything to write about.
My husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. In 2013, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in 2015.
For each of us it seemed our grief demanded its due. If I ignored my loss and failed to listen in order to force myself to work on fiction, I would dig myself deep into a writer’s block. To get into the flow, I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing, of who I thought I was as a writer, and accept what needed to be put on the page. For the time being, my husband was my muse. Nonfiction was my medium.
I followed Cooley’s advice and stopped beating myself up about the novels. Of course, a part of me knew this is what had to happen, but I needed to hear it from someone else. A former professor’s permission helped me to accept my move to nonfiction. But even after that, I assumed I was meant to write a book length memoir about my life with my husband, about his illness and death. Still, those essays kept coming.
Finally, I realized that I had been putting my story down all along, and that it wouldn’t be a memoir, but a collection of essays. Flash essays to be precise. They operate as the perfect vehicle for my experience of grief. They come upon me unexpectedly and hit quick and deep with a lasting ache.
I recognized that my life and my experiences would shape what I created. Limiting my idea of who I was as a writer limited my writing. Once again, I learned the lesson that letting go of what I thought my life would be and who I thought I should be opened me to more creativity, more possibilities.
I printed out a stack of essays to consider for the collection and prepared to go on my first writer’s retreat. In the back of my mind, I wondered if making a collection would allow me to return to writing fiction.
As I packed for the retreat, I logged on to a Zoom author event at the Center for Fiction for Martha Cooley’s new novel Buy Me Love. I folded laundry and listened. Cooley admitted that she’d been working on the novel for over fifteen years. She hadn’t been working on it the whole time, she said; she’d taken time off to do translations with her husband and to write an essay collection – Guesswork.
I found myself smiling. Cooley was right. She’d written what was coming to her and had let the novel that languished in the corner wait. Perhaps she’d been working on it in the back of her mind all the while, but she had finished it. It could be done. Her novel had waited. Maybe mine will too. I’m open to the possibilities.
Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her flash essays have appeared most recently in Longleaf Review, JMWW and Zone 3. She teaches Mindful Writing workshops through the Penn Program for Mindfulness. Visit her at www.susanbarrtoman.com.
Yes! I too wish I had nothing to write about. I keep thinking that when these relentless grief essays leave me the hell alone I’m going to write fiction. I love the title of your novel and am about to check it out.
Thanks, Eileen. Grief is a demanding muse!
I would also like to write an essay collection. Can you suggest some models? I know Lee Martin has written a couple of essay collections. Mine would be a book of linked essays.
Vivian Gornick, James Baldwin, subscribe to Creative Nonfiction and access their archives, Best American Essays, an anthology that has been published forsny years, Phillip Lopate’s own essays and The Art of The Personal Essay, John D’Agata ‘s incredible essay collections, including The New American Essay, Roxane Gay, the late and great Judith Kitchen, T- Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison’s Dancing in the Dark, Emily Fox Gordon…. Hope this helps.
Thanks so much.
There are so many. Vicki gave a nice list. One of my favorites is Andrea Jarrell’s “I’m the One That Got Away.”
Thanks. Is Andrea’s book a collection of linked essays?
Not sure what you mean. She writes about different times in her life and there are reoccurring themes and people.
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My favorite author-stories concern the books written while stalled on the “important” book. Many authors do this. The “important” book takes risks that scare the author, or—even better—the author takes risks with the stalling-book and it ends up being the one everyone remembers. George Elliot’s happened that way. Hardly anyone has read Romola, the important one, but most everyone is familiar with the book she wrote while avoiding work on it.
Love this idea!
This here: “To get into the flow, I had to let go of what I thought I should be doing, of who I thought I was as a writer, and accept what needed to be put on the page.” Thank you for sharing your story, Susan. I love that your memoir would be a collection of flash essays. Not every book has to be one long narrative, especially memoir. It’s not how we live our lives.
Thanks, Marie. My life at this point definitely doesn’t feel like one long narrative.
I enjoyed this essay—you made a good point. I like to sit and write and see where it takes me. To me the important thing is to just keep writing.
I know what you mean about grief coming in unexpected waves. My sister died in 2013. I’d be all right until a sudden overwhelming moment struck. The waves lessened in size and frequency, but that ache still comes back at odd times. I’m glad you found a way to channel your grief into a life-affirming gift.
I’m sorry you lost your sister. I think we just get better at riding those waves even if we don’t always see them coming.
Just the advice I need right now. Thank you from the depths of my soul 🙏🏻
Reading this article has in a way freed me from the guilt of not writing. Thank you.