A Happier Writer
December 14, 2021 § 17 Comments
By Melissa Fraterrigo
Lately, when I catch myself feeling content, it feels weird, like I should be complaining about my colleagues or boss. I’ve done that before, but I’m not doing that now. Happiness, it seems, takes some getting used to.
Instead, I marvel at the beauty of the poem I just read, or consider my student last week who shared how writing her memoir has allowed her to make peace with grief. The other students in the class and I had nodded behind our Zoom screens. Inside I glowed.
I have not always been a happy person, much less a happy writer. Growing up in my suburban middle-class family, I didn’t feel like I fit in. My brother excelled in sports and my younger sister aced tests and danced ballet on pointe. I didn’t do anything remarkable other than read and this seemed hardly a feat. I carried this angst around like a calling card, as known to me as my own face. “Melissa, you have got to get that chip off your shoulder,” my mother would say after getting in a fight with my sister for the umpteenth time that day, or slamming my bedroom door when just the sight of my sister reminded me of all I was not. It wasn’t until my college rhetoric professor asked me if I’d ever considered writing that I began to think that there might be something I was good at.
Yet when you grow up feeling at odds with the world, such a viewpoint is difficult to shake.
In graduate school, I fretted over missed awards and whether or not my professor liked my story. The more I worried, the more angst I felt. I taught creative writing at several colleges, but became overwhelmed by the pressure to publish in order to earn tenure. The discontent felt familiar. I segued into editing and freelance work so I would have more control over my schedule, searching for the perfect fit, certain such balance would enhance my writing. I published a collection of short stories and a novel. But I missed the camaraderie of graduate school, so in 2014, I founded a creative writing studio to help others learn how to tell their stories.
For a while, things were good.
But this past summer my dad became ill, and all the stories that I had been cultivating disappeared. My heart raced even when I went to help him between treatments, cutting his lawn in old gym shoes and a ballcap. At the end of chemotherapy and radiation, he often slept through my entire visit. When he lost the ability to chew, I bought him protein shakes and made custard from scratch. At home, sitting at my desk, a clean pad of paper in front of me, I didn’t have anything to say.
So I began to reread older, unfinished essays, trying to reinsert myself. As I started reworking these pieces, I was moved by their potential. Even though they were half-finished or unfocused, I was proud of them. Despite life’s new uncertainty, I sensed myself existing between misery and perfection—and it felt powerful.
Anne Lamott in her superb Bird by Bird says perfectionism “…is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die…perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”
Life was clearly a mess now—and I could see the value in it. While my dad is currently stable, I know that someday he won’t be here and neither will I.
There is always someone else earning a better book deal or writing a more beautiful sentence than your own. As a writer, it’s easy to get caught up in what you aren’t accomplishing rather than seeing how far you’ve come..and delighting in the direction you’re headed.
A happier writer:
- Can point out what feels electric in their work and notice the energy in others’ work.
- Participates in a writing community. I began the Lafayette Writers’ Studio because I hoped to support others on their writing journeys, but I also hoped the writers would become a part of my journey. And they have, especially during the pandemic when we joked about what we were wearing from the Zoom screen down, yet workshopped each other’s pieces with vigorous care.
- Learns about everything. We can never know what’s likely to trigger a story or make its way into a story. Even a loved one’s illness can enrich pages.
- Makes a mess by embracing all of life’s pains and losses and disappointments. Good things flow from the unexpected.
A happy writer isn’t bound to one definition of success, but sees a kaleidoscope of possibilities. A happy writer pays attention to what supports their creativity and nurtures this in others. Each of us has the potential to be a happy writer. At least part of the time.
Melissa Fraterrigo is the author of the novel Glory Days (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), which was named one of “The Best Fiction Books of 2017” by the Chicago Review of Books as well as the story collection The Longest Pregnancy (Livingston Press, 2006). She founded the Lafayette Writers’ Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, where she offers live and virtual classes on the art and craft of writing. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @lafayettewrite