Recently, Jordan Rosenfeld, who has a great new book out called A Writer's Guide to Persistence, asked a great question on social media: when did you persist through a challenge as a writer? Motivated by the fact that the best answer would win a free book--I am a total sucker for free stuff, especially books--I started thinking.
Of course I thought of all the usual suspects--as I have often written in this column, we don't do a great job of supporting artists in this culture--my own stories of genteel poverty, rejection and relentless hard work. We each have our own versions but together they form the writer's narrative. I see them in my students' lives now, see them in their struggles, in their own journeys. Sometimes I think they look at me and think I haven't been there. I have. Some of it gets better; some of the struggles remain.
One of my stories, though, falls outside the typical writer's narrative I have described here. Or at least, I hope it does.
My memory, in middle age, waxes and wanes, but the first four months of my MFA program at George Mason University remain vivid in my mind. Striking out for Mason on my own, I lived in a row house in Washington, DC with roommates from my undergraduate college, working as a receptionist in the district and commuting to Mason three nights a week. I was naturally shy and didn't know a soul in my new program but that didn't seem to matter as I drove past the Washington Monument, bathed in white light, on the way home from class. I felt lucky. Getting up at five am the next morning to write and spending every spare moment with a book in my hand because I'd accidentally signed up for one course too many didn't seem to matter either-- I was already in a class with my favorite writer, Richard Bausch. I was learning so much. I was on my way.
And then, one night, as I got out of my twelve-year old Pontiac station wagon in front of my house, a gentleman across the street asked me what time it was. I say gentleman because that was what he looked like. He was wearing a tan, camel-haired coat, a navy bird's-eye sweater and a flat cap and in the time it took me to look at my watch he was suddenly inches in front of me, pushing me against the door, telling me that he was sorry but he had a gun and to get back in the car.
I am writing this column now because I resisted. Because I made the conscious, split-second decision that it would be better to be shot in front of my shared row house with people inside, than to go with this man to wherever he wanted to take me, to do whatever he wanted to do.
For future reference, the officer who later arrived on the scene confirmed this. My assailant was planning to take me to a secondary location, a remote location, where there would be no witnesses.
"Never let them take you to the secondary location," the officer said, for the benefit of me and my three terrified female roommates. "No one survives the secondary location."
In the next few moments, while I stalled, the door to the house beside mine opened and a large group came out, flooding the street with light and people. Suddenly, my assailant backed off of me and, fearful of so many bystanders, ran.
I can still see him now, jogging up that street in the darkness.
I did not feel so lucky after that. In fact, after that, passing the Washington Monument on the way home was usually when I began crying, because this meant I would soon have to find a parking space on my street and run the gauntlet to the front door. This went on every night, several nights a week, until the first year of the program ended. At this point, my roommates left the city and, since they had been my only reason for living there in the first place, so did I. I moved to the Northern Virginia suburbs, to be closer to the university.
I thought I would feel safer in the suburbs, but this turned out to be only marginally true. I did not feel safe anywhere. I would not feel safe for years. I entered long term therapy for post-traumatic-stress disorder and severe anxiety resulting from this and other slightly less life-threatening events that, having nothing to do with me as writer, are best suited to another essay, at another time. Perhaps. People who follow me on social media may wonder why I repost so many links about rape culture--this is your answer.
But the strange thing is, when my roommates and I were parting that summer, one of them said, "I can't believe you stayed. After what happened to you. I would have just packed it in and gone home."
At the time I just nodded and shrugged. Later, as I thought about her words I was mystified. Because, ironically, in spite of everything, it had never occurred to me to pack it in and go home. I was finally in a place where I was getting somewhere. I was living a writer's life, even if it was around the margins of another job. I was studying with writers--Richard Bausch, Susan Shreve, Alan Cheuse--with whom I'd dreamed of working. I would never have given all that up. I was just getting started.
In case you're wondering, my story didn't actually win--although Ms. Rosenfeld did comment on it--and I just went ahead and bought her book, which I highly recommend. I wasn't going for a sympathy vote anyway; it's just a story that I feel is mine alone and for the first time I felt ready to tell it in writing, as I am, again here. But that's not the point. There were a lot of great stories of persistence on her feed. I guess that's part of what makes us writers. Packing it in just doesn't enter our minds--or not for long anyway.
The truth is, my entire life is based upon the fact that I can't not write. That's why I didn't turn tail and go home all those years ago. Which is basically the same thing Christine Sneed said in a recent piece here, enumerating her own challenges and when she says:
"When people ask me if they should become writers, I tell them yes, if the experience of writing--all by itself--brings them joy. Because that's the only way they'll reliably find it."
I hope that's true for you too, because that's all I can promise you. Although, based on my own experience, that kind of joy is no small thing. Outside of my family and my friends, that kind of joy is pretty much everything.