"This is Why I Write" Confessions of a Non-Essential Part 2
“I write to discover what I know.” — Flannery O’Connor
“Confessions of a Non-Essential” is a limited series on my being a non-essential worker. I am currently under a government order to shelter-in-place. I’ll be using this time during our global pandemic to be introspective about what I’m doing with my life.
Sunday, March 29, 2020 I just got off the phone with my foster mother. She’s the one who I devoted the final chapters to in my first book, “Foster Girl, a Memoir.” It’s the end of week two of self-isolation for both of us. My foster mother lives in the powdered Midwest Great Lakes region and while her state doesn’t have as many coronavirus cases as California does, she’s in a much higher-risk group. So far, she’s good on supplies but in all her 80+ years, she has never been to a grocery store where there were long empty shelves. She has made arrangements with her local grocer to take advantage of the senior shopping hours and other than that new reality, she’s hanging in as best as can be expected in these uncertain times. Eventually, we got around to discussing my new coronavirus inspired series and what I’m trying to do with it. “Well, as you know, my professional life hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would and, uh, I just want to use this series to work through why that is.” I didn’t even have to name what I was talking about. My foster mother knows it’s all about “Foster Girl.” She’s heard me talk about that book in the over ten years it took me to write it. Now, I didn’t do nothing but write for over a decade. I wrote in pockets of time. The most dense, glacier-sized time I could write about my traumatic childhood was in graduate school. Before and after that, besides unemployment, I could only write in spurts on weekends and evenings. In addition to the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours I spent on writing my book, there was the thousands of dollars of my own money that I spent putting my book together. I spent over $10,000 in book editing and designing fees alone, and then there was marketing, which costed even more money. I’d been on television, radio and magazines as a result of my outreach but nothing moved the needle. I sold maybe 15 books total from my media appearances and got zero opportunities to speak anywhere. It has been harder than I thought it would be to get readers and interest. Needless to say, my foster mother well knows that despite all my years of grind in putting my book out there, Foster Girl hasn’t really caught fire. There was no blazing wildfire, only campfires. My book didn’t do what I wanted it to do. It didn’t revise my life’s script. I’ve gotten bedridden depressed over Foster Girl’s debut. Foster Girl was published almost seven years ago and it sold less than 10,000 copies. Not all who I reached out to were interested. People in child welfare and Master of Social Worker programs passed on it without even reading my book. Passed on it without reading an excerpt. In my outreach, I didn’t always get call backs or emails returned. Eventually, the lack of responses did me in. I listened to that inner voice that reinforced my non-essentiality. I stopped reaching out. It was hard enough to put mere words on the spirit of what I went through, let alone spending lots of money and years learning how to craft isolated tragic events into stories that flow and illuminate. I thought the efforts would be rewarded. Isn’t that what we’ve all been taught? Work hard enough, be persistent, and then you can achieve anything? Well, I did that and I have fallen spectacularly short. I put in the hours, the work and money but did not get the return. I did not get what I put into it. My own sense of failure must concern my foster mom. She no doubt once had high hopes for me. She met me when I was a determined 16-year-old and I showed her nothing but early signs of success. Upon moving in with her, I had already bounced around a dozen times in the two years of being in foster care. Despite all those moves, I quickly established myself in her house and local school. Had to. Survival. I also got an after school job selling Mrs. Field’s cookies at the mall and saved every penny for the two years I was with her. I didn’t have time to be a kid. I carried that stalwartness right into college and into the workforce. I moved forward aggressively, like a bulldozer on a construction site. But that was a long time ago. Since I published my book, I changed. Instead of moving onward and upward, I’ve been standing still. I’ve become financially dependent for once in my life. I’ve lost my old self. Sometime in our phone call, my foster mom asked if I wrote another book? “I have and I got it edited but it’s on hold.” I said, not explaining why. After some more volleying, my foster mom went into problem-solving mode. “[Georgette], you know what might help you as a writer?” my foster mother said. Her voice sounded hopeful if not sympathetic. “I think it would help you if you wrote about something else besides yourself. Try writing about something outside yourself. There are so many things out in the world to write about.” My foster mother loves me and I love her. She wants to help and she means well but two thoughts came to mind in response to her advice. This is what I said: “Yeah, I’ve tried that. It felt like an unnatural stretch. Besides, there’s enough people out there already doing that. I mean, name the subject, lots of other people are already writing about it.” This is what I didn’t say but thought: “You know you should re-read Chapter 4 of my book. Then pull out a highlighter and mark the scene where my parents sexually abused me. After that, get out a pen and underline the sentences where I describe my mother doing the most unspeakable thing she could do to her daughter. Me.
When I was a child, after months of sexual abuse, I snorted too much cocaine one day. At age 13, I had had enough of this life. I turned blue, I stopped breathing, I faced death. But then, through CPR and an ambulance unit, I was brought back to life. When I recovered, alone in the ICU, hooked up to a heart monitor and with IV’s needles pricked into my veins, I started crying uncontrollably. I didn’t understand why I was alive. I didn’t want to be alive. But there I was, alive. It wasn’t at that exact moment, but around that time, when I decided that in order to emotionally cope with living, I needed to write. I needed to write all this out. I needed the world to know what I had gone through and I was not going to spare one iota of detail. I would not smooth out those shards. I couldn’t control the life I was born into but I could control my response to it. I would respond in writing. It would be painful to write about all this. It would be painful to read my stories but I had to transport this pain living inside me. That I still have in me. This is why I write. I write to let others know what I went through and what I’m still wrestling with as a result. Pain lessens over time but it doesn’t evaporate. I write to make sense of it all. I write for catharsis. I write to get clarity in my psychological fun house. Sometimes I write for fun but mainly, I write because I have unusual stories to tell. I write for community since there are others out there who can relate to me. I write because of all that I survived. My life maybe non-essential, but it’s uniquely mine and I’m still here. While I’m here, this is what I choose to do. I choose to write. Hmmm…maybe by this metric, I’m successful after all?