On Essaying

Pic by Tom Cavnar (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This post is in response to The Daily Post’s Money for Nothing prompt: “If you’re like most of us, you need to earn money by working for a living. Describe your ultimate job. If you’re in your dream job, tell us all about it — what is it that you love? What fulfills you? If you’re not in your dream job, describe for us what your ultimate job would be.”

~ ~ ~

This. This is it, folks.

I went for about a year in my early 20’s wearing shoes that were 1½ sizes too small for me. My toes bunched up against their confines. There were lumps on the tops of them. My feet hurt. Somehow, I hadn’t realised that my feet had grown, nor that I wasn’t living in ancient China where foot-binding was a required practice. Somehow, I walked around in discomfort for months on end until one day, with dawning shock, I realised what I hadn’t been able to see. I felt like I had abandoned myself, somehow. It made me awfully sad, and that sadness at my self-abandonment has only increased over the years.

After that, I eased myself into something more comfortable, and my toes, extra long like my fingers, stretched out into a brand new size 10 life sans lumps.

Sometimes you find yourself shoved into too-small confines. Sometimes you don’t even realise it, not for years and years and maybe not even forever. I realised in my 20’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write. Now I’m in my mid-40’s and here I am, writing. Not being paid for it. Still building up the portfolio. Building up the confidence. Getting angry at the amount of ads still wending their way around the internet that talk about how good this exposure will be for your career. As if that somehow takes off the pressure off them realising that they’re using people for their own profit.

The respect paid to writers is minimal now that everyone thinks they can do it. The pay reflects that, unless you’re in the upper echelons. I go round in circles thinking the writing game is for mugs. And so I put down the pen, push away from the keyboard, and go away for 48 hours at the most until the itch starts burning again.

It feels like a sort of madness, this passion. I don’t know what I would do without it. The colour would leach out of the world like the blood draining from the face of a CFS/ME person whose orthostatic intolerance has them looking wildly for a couch.

And so that’s where I find myself. Stuck in a space where the dues may not ever be paid, but taking all my meaning from it like it’s ecstasy.

My university degree has been going on for 17 years. This is what happens when you get glandular fever which morphs into CFS/ME and so you stop and start and stop and start your degree and suddenly 17 years go past. The last in-class subject I did was Creative Nonfiction: The Personal Essay. This subject was my niche. It felt about 7360 times more comfortable to me than, say, the subject I did at another university across town several years ago on playwriting. Of the two major pieces I wrote for Creative Nonfiction, I sold both of them.

I love that sentence so much, I have to write it again. Bear with my indulgence.

Of the two major pieces I wrote for Creative Nonfiction, I sold both of them.

What a wonderful confidence-inspiring time that was! To sell both pieces I’d written in the space of a couple of months! I wish I could say that things continued in that vein, but no. Since then, there’s been a 17-month-or-so gap where I’ve sold absolutely nothing. Oh, there’s been forward movement. I’ve grown more as a writer in that time. I feel my confidence has grounded into the earth so that it’s a thing separate from whether anyone buys my words or doesn’t.

I know now not to take it personally. This is where I’ve grown, you see. It’s been made easier by the encouragement that’s come along with those rejections. “Please send us more of your work” is the crumbs you lick gratefully from underneath the editorial table. Despite my 17-month-long desperation, where I’ve flung myself about the house when I had the energy, crying copiously and feeling like I’ll never get anywhere because look at all the fucking competition in a fucking diminished market with fucking eyeballs that have been trained to look at fucking clickbait for three seconds before they click over to something the fuck else.

Now, that quiet confidence simmers away underneath all of that hardcore stewing. I don’t want to do anything but this. I am further ahead in the field than some people who never know what they want to do. I want to write essays. John D’Agata explains it well:

An essay is something that tracks the evolution of a human mind. It tracks the evolution of a single consciousness in order to give us an experience—an experience of looking for something and then finding ourselves in a different place by the time we’ve finished our journey. It doesn’t mean that the thing we went in search of has been found or that a problem has been solved; it doesn’t mean that the world has changed, or has been fixed. It means that our understanding of the initial question or subject is different. It’s clearer—or maybe muddier—but it’s at least different. And that experience that we’re allowed to share with the writer feels very pure because the whole movement of an essay is propelled by a fundamentally human impulse to want to figure things out. That’s the thing that moves an essay forward, that inquiry. It’s not narrative posturing or poetic costuming. It’s just thinking, and sharing the experience of thinking.

This is why the essay feels like my home. It’s the space of the right-hand-side, the dreamy kind of space that literal-minded people think is a waste, a space that is subjective and therefore useless, unusable as it is in a double-blind placebo-controlled study. Well, I quite fancy double-blind placebo-controlled studies, especially the future ones that hopefully find a cure for this disease, but I am also mindful that while the scientific method can measure what an orgasm does, for example, it can’t bloody well have one.

I love essays because I think individual experiences are unutterably valuable, and they provide answers to questions that I never realised I’ve asked. They add colour, texture, understanding to the world as I experience it. They broaden my mind. There is space for many more kinds of knowledge than only one.

Of course, there’s no money in writing. But there’s no money in having a chronic illness so if I’m stuck working at home, trying to fit it in around the times when I’m feeling okay, I may as well be earning no money from it.

Of course, if there happens to be such a sensible thing as the universal basic income, that will change everything. And it will change nothing. I will still be here doing exactly the same thing I’ve been passionate about doing for 20 years. I’ll just be able to subscribe to more literary journals, contribute to paying the bills and my partner’s mortgage, and buy a new purse so that I don’t look like the hermetic, poverty-stricken garret dweller than I’m actually not only because of the kindness of others.


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