Does the World Need Another Essay?
April 11, 2022 § 38 Comments
by Dorothy Rice
It’s Spring 2022, over two years since life was transformed by a global pandemic. Meetings, appointments, and vacations cancelled. Professional obligations and expectations suspended. My longest stretch of workaday limbo, aside from three maternity leaves.
“I think we should stay away for a while. You’re in that vulnerable age group,” my son said, over the phone during the initial quarantine. “We can’t risk anything happening to you.” Which meant no son, no grandkids, for weeks that became months.
I had unscheduled time. Every writer’s dream. I might have completed that memoir, tackled my moldering list of essays, made progress on the middle grade novel begun as a break from the navel gazing of personal writing. But my thoughts were unfocused, too diffuse to distil into coherent sentences.
I excavated closets and cupboards, arrayed the leavings of five grown children and my recently deceased mother on the dining room table, wishing they were the pages of a manuscript. I held each object, felt its heft and texture. Victorian glassware and mismatched China. Grandma’s handknit, hand-sewn suits and dresses, each with a dyed-to-match silk slip. Mom’s Latin American textiles, photo albums from her world travels. Children’s artwork, their imagined futures in photos, award certificates and boxes of mementos.
I amassed piles. Keep. Gift. Recycle. Repurpose. Trash. The lines bleary as my thoughts. A can of baking powder that expired in 1988—trash or collectible? A sack of wooden spools from my own sewing days—string them into aclunky necklace for a kindergarten teacher?
The silverware drawer and pantry became marvels of cleanliness and organization. I ordered padded storage boxes (that appeared on the doorstep days later) for the glassware—one daughter said she’d want it if she ever left Manhattan. I assembled sewing baskets for my two sisters with surplus notions acquired from Grandma, Mom, and thrift stores. I did touch my writing. Documents dragged into computer folders. Journals arranged in descending year order. My office was ready for me whenI was ready for it.
Along with routines, schedules, and external obligations, I was suspended, in creative limbo.
In younger years, when I expressed angst about the future, Mom would remind me I was just a grain of sand on the beach of life, a cog in a great machine. “Find your cog and put your shoulder behind it,” she would say. I’ll show you, I used to think, I’m no cog, no grain of sand, I’m special.
Now I get it. I was, I am, a grain of sand, a cog, a Victorian bubble-glass goblet.
The urgency of anything I had to say withered in the face of world events. Global pandemic. Wildfires. Uncloseted white supremacy and bigotry. Gun violence, fake news, conspiracy theories. War, refugees, famine, closed borders. Earth gasping for breath. There all along. Then a massive hand shook the planet like a snow globe. Virus molecules insinuated themselves into every nook and cranny, leavening, and gas-lighting our differences, our placement on the privilege scale.
In light of life revealed, bruised and diseased, I was neutralized. Does the world need this essay, I asked myself. Does the world need another memoir? Does the world need anything I have to say? Of course, the things the world doesn’t need appears infinite and expanding. Does the world need another roundabout? Another dipping sauce, cat celebrity or meme? What the world needs now (cue music) is less, not more, a time out from human-kind’s machinations.
For two years I’ve treaded creative water, begun project after project, only to stutter, then stop, in the face of the blinking, blinding, why. Why these words, this topic, why me? No one will be hospitalized or cured if I don’t write. No one will despair. No one will notice at all. Was that ever the point? It’s not as if I believed my words could home the homeless, put food in children’s bellies, or avert another senseless war.
Joan Didion famously wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Of course, she’s Joan Didion, and I’m not. Yet isn’t it the same for any writer, no matter our success or visibility? I write to dissect what it is to be me, in this body, place and time, never knowing when my words will bring comfort, make someone feel less alone, or elicit a smile.
When I don’t transcribe life onto the page, when I don’t move words around until they resemble my truth, I’m left with a sense of lost opportunity. Does the world need another essay? No. But sometimes I do. How else to attempt to make sense of the world? And why cede my words to all that we need even less—another “reality” show, miracle diet, clump of big box stores. My words don’t take up space, interrupt traffic, create false hope, or defile what’s left of nature. Yet once written, they exist, one human’s experience distilled, like the petroglyphs and cave drawings of civilizations past.
After two years twiddling my fingers over the computer keys, I’m clicking them again, not because the world needs me to, but because I do. I’m a writer. That’s the cog I put my shoulder to.
Lately, when I see my ten-year-old grandson, he asks, “How’s that novel coming, Grandma?” If he were a fellow writer or nosy neighbor, I’d assume he’d asked because he knew it wasn’t. From my grandson it’s a reminder that he wants me to finish the dang novel so he can read it.
“It won’t be you,” I remind him, because I’ve told him the protagonist is also a ten-year-old boy. “There may be parts of the character you don’t like.”
“Yeah I know,” he says. “He can’t be all good. That would be boring, right?”
Which he knows because his grandmother is a writer and we talk about these things.
Dorothy Rice is the author of Gray is the New Black: A Memoir of Self-Acceptance, The Reluctant Artist, an art book/memoir, and editor of the anthology TWENTY-TWENTY: 43 Stories from a Year Like No Other. She is Managing Editor with Under the Gum Tree, and co-director of Stories on Stage Sacramento, a nonprofit literary performance series. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60. Find her on twitter at @dorothyrowena and at dorothyriceauthor.com.