The Cosmic, Regenerative, Portal Creation, “Magik” of the Essay
The first time I wrote a creative piece for publication, I felt a little like Marvel’s super-heroine Jessica Jones must have felt the first time she hurled a bad guy across the room, discovering her power. I didn’t realize what I’d done. I’d been writing with a group of friends, getting together every few weeks, eating and drinking and sharing stories. I was a middle-aged woman with a new hobby. And when a call went out from my local paper for submissions, in the blind boldness of a beginner, I thought, why not?
I wish I could tell you how it happened. All I can say is, the call was a sign, and I followed it. I told the story of quirky Austin Texas in 1979 and my decision to make it home. But I also spoke of the tangled feelings in trading one loved place for another. And like a falling star — something that happens less often now that I turn every word like a puzzle piece — the prose flew, the universe responded, the piece was published. It was magic.
Jessica is a beautiful, irritable, private detective living in New York City. Her power came after an accident that took the lives of her family when she was just a girl, an incident for which she feels responsible. Now she spends her days and nights capturing the dark truth of other people’s lives. When she thinks of her own, she reaches for the bourbon, ever at hand.
That fissure unearthed a memory, a day in third grade when the teacher asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I raised my eight-year-old hand, feeling mighty at my little desk. “I want to be a famous writer.” Yet, in the years I’d been given to be something, the years that would qualify as “my shot,” I had not used my power. I had never been a writer. Now, as I wrote more essays, after so much time, I had to consider what had been lost. I learned of the person I was who did not write. I uncovered stories, sad in their truth, of the girl who did not follow her dream.
About the time that piece was published, flush with acceptance, I started a blog. I had moved to a stretch of land where I lived with horses and planted a vegetable garden in an empty paddock. There, amidst the animals and the earth, writing seemed to be, after all, bubbling up. I even got a small gig co-authoring a syndicated food column. The blog was so much work and finding readers even harder. Still, I wrote of moments and my recognition of them. I pried open portals, even if it was recounting my grandmother’s pink cushy hands pulling perfectly formed biscuits. Of course, it was more than the biscuits. I was writing essays.
Soon, I submitted again and quickly discovered how the rest of the world was not as loving as my home town paper. I realized I needed to know more of this alchemy I was attempting.
I went back to the rejected pieces and looked for problems. I sought out other readers who would not be so kind as my “let’s have some wine and read what you wrote,” friends. During that time, the horse stories were adding up, and they began to track to where, I didn’t know. But maybe it was a memoir. One night I told a friend, “How can I write this when I don’t know how it ends?” She said, “You don’t need to know.”
Jessica doesn’t use her powers much, her abilities sprang from events too painful to consider. To live with them, to reconcile the fact of them, she will have to look back at everything that happened. Everything that made her.
I took classes and hired a coach. I learned craft for the first time. The assignments illuminated scenes from my life and I studied them, not knowing what I’d find. I began working on the manuscript in earnest, but in the back of my mind hummed the essay, which I only knew by name, only acknowledged by the fact that I’d whipped molecules together and wrote one.
Having always been a reader, I read more. I read books on creative writing, such as E.B. White’s Elements of Style, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, but also books on memoir and essay, such as Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Tell It Slant, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. I read other writers’ essays, novels, and memoirs. I read, read, read. I wrote and submitted and continued down the road to rejection.
Once, before submitting an essay I’d been working on for a while, I sent it to an editor who’d worked on my manuscript. It was some of the best instruction I’d ever received. She not only helped with the piece, which went on to be published, but she gave me a further lesson in the skill and understanding of what the essay is. I’d written about my father, his death, and our complicated relationship. In her edits, she wrote, Why or how is this relationship like this? Your narrative needs to answer that question.
A couple of seasons in, Jessica meets another powered person. His super- power is detecting bad intent. It isn’t always evil, although it sometimes is. But it’s more the forces at work in a person that pull them from their rightness. He can sense the slightest struggle, and when he does, he feels as if his head might explode. It could if he doesn’t get away. At one point Jessica asks him to give her a reading of herself. For all the ways she is different from the rest of us, she is, in the end, human, and can’t see her own soul.
Virginia Woolf wrote, “….the truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul, looked at it vanishes. But look at the ceiling, at Grizzle, (the dog), at the cheaper beasts in the zoo…..and the soul slips in.”
I had summarized the situation of the relationship with my father, and our time together in the last days of his life. That, I thought, was the story. As the editor challenged me to answer her question, I had to visit the moments that led me there. I had to look at them, and it would be painful. But I also knew I did not want to demonize the man I’d just held as he lay dying. I wanted to be honest about my father, and about me. I wanted to do good.
Making revisions, I was given an ability. I could see what I hadn’t before. After a lifetime, and after my father and I were out of chances, we were granted one. It didn’t change what had happened. But I used my new power to access the parallel world of what had really been going on those years ago, which was more than my young heart and mind could have grasped. I also uncovered the hidden amulets of the writing I was trying to do. The soul slipped in that spring day as I held my father’s hand, but I didn’t understand it until I put the pieces of the essay together.
When Jessica finally decides how she will use her powers, an evil figure from her past has returned, and powered too, takes her back to her childhood. There, she relives the events that led to the tragedy and sees how everything was not her fault. Besides, whatever happened, she can use what’s left for good.
A while ago, a writing coach told me that an essential aspect of the process is thinking. But I’m impatient. When a story wells up, I want to put it down and send it out, just as I did those years ago with my first essay. And most times I feel like a Marvel character ripped in my agony to understand what it all means. I just want it to end. But thinking reveals much, it reveals more. In those first moments, I may feel something is a story, but I don’t realize how it is one. In the examination, it turns and twists, secrets are shared, truth is crystalized. Still, questions go unanswered, and like all art, mixed with unavoidable effort and mandatory skill, there is magic. What my friend was trying to tell me those years ago was, Just write, and you will find your power.
At the end of season three, Jessica has battled the bad and despicable, wrestled with guilt and righteousness, in herself and others. Left standing and devastated, she decides to run. At the last minute, she changes her mind. She pulls herself up and looks ahead as she turns from the ticket counter at the train station, a rare smile on her face as she walks away.