Well, I did it. I finished my NaNoWriMo novel on November 28--50,049 words that add up to a very rough draft of my YA novel, Seed Bombs. It was such a relief to reach the finish line--it reminded me that I am indeed a writer (something that should have been a given in my mind, but after writing so little the last couple of years, part of me couldn’t help but worry that those days were over.) It was also a relief to finish a couple of days early, because the 2nd anniversary of my mom’s death was the 29th, and I was grateful to not have word counts looming in the back of my mind as my family and I honored her yahrzeit, releasing roses into the Oceanside harbor off the same pier where we had released her ashes.
My mom’s death has affected my writing life in ways that I haven’t been able to fully process yet. When she took her own life, it was as if she also took my writerly ambitions. Not at first--at first I was burning to get to the page, filled with an urgency to research and write about her life, so I could try to begin to understand it, understand her. It was how I coped with going through all of her papers, her belongings--I was excavating for clues, I told myself, finding things to write about. At some point, though, that urgency faded and I was left with the cold hard fact that she’d be dead the rest of my life, that there was no great hurry to try to figure things out, get them on paper. This new sense of ennui invaded other parts of my life, especially my own writing. Part of me responded to my mother’s death by wanting to life live to the fullest, wanting to enjoy every tiny moment of my brief time on this beautiful planet; another part of me suddenly saw everything as meaningless. What’s the point of striving, I thought, when we’re all just tiny specks in the universe and we’re all going to die, anyway?
My mom had been an incredibly ambitious woman, filled with delusions of grandeur, convinced that the Museum of Contemporary Art would show her paintings when she had been a painter for just 40 wildly inspired days. The variety of business cards that littered her home spoke to her broad range of ambition--she had tried over the years to rebrand herself as a tour guide, a media escort, a nutrition bar magnate, an art dealer, a divorce reformer, a head hunter, to begin to scratch the surface. At the time of her death, she was working on a documentary called The Art of Misdiagnosis, which showcased her own artwork and how it related to diseases that she thought her family had suffered from. This documentary completely took over her life, and may in fact have contributed to her death.
As I watched my mom’s projects crash and burn over the years, I stayed steadfast on my own writing path. I knew my experience was different from hers--I was grounded in my craft, while she flitted from passion to temporary passion. I was digging deep; she was casting wide. I always appreciated her ambition, although her ambitious hopes for my own writing career often made me feel as if I wasn’t living up to my full potential.
With her death, any sense of ambition I may have had plummeted. I watched my own work crash and burn as two books I wrote with love, Delta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, came out last year to little to no fanfare. I began to wonder why I should even continue to be an author when my work was met with such resounding silence, and when I was starting to feel a looming silence inside myself that swallowed up any words I might want to write.
In her moving acceptance speech at the recent National Book Awards, novelist Jesmyn Ward talked about how losing her brother taught her that life is “a ‘feeble, unpredictable thing,’ but that books were a testament of strength before a punishing world.” Writing, she had told the AP earlier that week, was a way to “ease the looming fact of death.” I had been given that same lesson about the feebleness and unpredictability of life after my mother’s death, but even books felt feeble and unpredictable to me--they didn’t save me the way they had Jesmyn Ward (even though they have saved me in so many ways throughout my life). My own words felt frail and pointless against the looming fact of her death, of my eventual death, of all of our mortality.
But at some point, I could start to feel the words fight back. I could feel stories forming inside myself with a renewed vigor. I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I was still doubting myself, doubting the worth of whatever handfuls of words I might fling against a page. But I decided to give in to them. I plunged into National Novel Writing Month (and I released my 2002 NaNoWriMo novel, The Book of Live Wires, as an ebook--itself a leap of faith). And this returned me to myself. Death is still there, hovering, but so is life. So is the lusciousness of language. And it *is* worthwhile. It is important. Death is the ultimate silencer. Why not use our voices as freely and fully as we can, while we can? They may get swallowed up, but there is great beauty in singing into the void. There is great beauty in singing one’s way out of the void, as well. Thanks again to NaNoWriMo for bringing my writing voice back.