Just let go. Get well slow. Claim rest as holy work. – Josina
When I was in my MFA, my full-time job was being a writer. I’d start the day with decaf coffee before getting ready for my morning meeting with Lookout Books and my afternoon meeting with Beloit Poetry Journal. I’d spend semesters reading workshop letters during lunch, taking notes in books sometimes assigned, sometimes even written by my mentors. Every waking moment was meant for writing. And the department was my refuge for it. I’d leave classes and Writers’ Week conferences feeling energized, ready to write. Writing often in between classes, on the weekends, over holiday breaks, and, of course, before an upcoming workshop deadline.
My mother often said You’ll have so much more free time when you’re not in school anymore. But I didn’t mind. I was a writer, an editor, a marketer, a reading series leader, a student, a co-worker, a friend. I stretched myself to fill every opportunity and I loved every minute of it. Receiving my MFA and BFA back-to-back from the same institution, I spent seven years of my life with this one purpose: I am a writer. I write.
My thesis from the MFA program is Between Two Houses: a novel based in Cankton, Louisiana, where my family is from. In 2019, my writing day was flying to New Orleans with my mother and driving to Cankton. A part of my mother’s history that she had not seen in over 40 years. While my thesis is a work of fiction, the work exists in a real place—honoring my family and our collective histories.
The novel, like myself, has visions of changing shape, growing into something that gets at the heart of what I’ve been struggling to say. One of the protagonists in the novel, Lyla, is coming to terms with her father’s death but also discovering who she is outside of her family’s influence. She doesn’t know who she is now that this big defining pull is gone.
She’s well…like me.
Almost two years out of my MFA program now, I can’t say that my writing days are the same. I’m in the process of revising my novel with the intention of querying agents again. But I’d be lying to you if I said I’ve touched the manuscript more than I’ve tweeted about the idea of working on it. I email my accountability partners with no pages, reschedule workshops with friends, fall off the wagon, and apologize often. To my friends. To my mentors and professors. To my dream agent. To myself.
I don’t feel like a writer anymore, I tweet. There are heart reactions and hugs and same and reassurance that I most definitely am one. It’s ironic that I’m sitting in my protagonist Lyla’s shoes closer than I ever have before. This year is a grief-filled year: chapters closing, moving house, losing loved ones and pets who have passed away. And through all this, I’m trying to reckon with myself. Who I am and what I want out of life.
I feel unmoored. I’ve spent this year crying. I cry saying goodbye to friends who move away, who are set on a new path. I cry when pets, extended family members, and faculty members pass away. I cry about not having any hobbies or too little hobbies or too little time in the day to do anything or not wanting to do anything once I have the time. I clock out of work and immediately lay down in bed. I don’t want to leave the house. The laundry piles up. So do the dishes. I tell my partner this makes my brain itch. I am both burnout and restless. The ship and the iceberg that sinks it.
I attend bi-monthly therapy sessions. I up the milligrams on my medication. I get pissed when that pill isn’t enough, and I need to take my other medication on top of it to trick my body into calm. I’m learning and will probably forever be learning that planning my life gives me comfort but that I don’t need a plan to feel safe with being a human in this world.
I want to reflect on what nurtures our minds and our bodies. The writing life, to me now, is as much sitting down to write as it is getting away from the page to cultivate small moments away. Jessica Jacobs and I talked about a digital sabbath, taking time away from technology to take care of our minds and spirits and, in extension, our writing.
This is new to me. Moving against writer’s guilt (Am I writing enough? My book will never be acquired if I don’t finish the damn thing. Will I finish it?).
Instead, I want to find a small joy that makes me excited to return to the page when I’m ready. I want to give myself grace to return to the joys I’ve neglected like calling my friends, crocheting, and reading. This is a hard practice to start but a worthy one. Nourishing and honoring our creativity in a less regimented but more gentle way is what I want to learn to hold.
This is the longest piece of writing I’ve
written in almost two years. I hope that this is the beginning of a return. So
today, on this writing day, this first writing day in so long, I want to
manifest. One day I will have energy again. One day I will sit down with my
novel and try to write it. I’ll try again. I’ll map. I’ll restructure. I’ll a write
a sentence. Maybe a paragraph or two in one sitting. I’ll be kind to myself
when I fall off the wagon again. Because I will. When my depression and anxiety
and burnout raise their ugly heads, I’ll be kinder. I’ll tell myself I’m as
much a writer when I write as when I do not. That I’m as much a good person and
friend when I’m well as when I’m sick. I’ll tell myself that this life is worth
it and that joy will return again.
Katherine O’Hara received an MFA with Distinction from UNCW and is a Tin House Workshop alumna. She is the communications director for the NC Writers' Network—the state’s oldest and largest literary arts services organization devoted to writers. She’s also marketing manager of Longleaf Review and reads submissions for storySouth and Hub City Press. She has worked formerly for Beloit Poetry Journal, Ecotone, and Lookout Books. Among others, Katherine’s writing has appeared in the Hayden’s Ferry Review, NELLE, Artemis Journal, and YES POETRY. As far as writing, she is pitching her hybrid novel that features poetic interpretations of grief in rural Louisiana, where her family is from.