A few desks down from me, a young and healthy woman is drinking this:
In the summer of 1984, I was a newly married Navy wife away from my home in Texas for the first time in my life (I didn’t count the frequent family trips to Mexico during my childhood). Away from my parents’ ever mindful care, I felt free and unencumbered by restraints of any kind. My husband, Michael, was at sea more often than he was home, and I had a car all to myself. I drove to the beach on Saturdays, alone. I drove around in the evenings and got to know the city, alone. I went to the movies, alone. And through all this, I was never, ever afraid.
The August 1984 murder of young Tammy Welch was a watershed day for young 19-year-old me. Tammy and her family lived in the same apartment complex that Michael and I had just moved into. Tammy’s murder changed my view of good and evil, of youthful positivity and the loss of innocence. The day before Tammy was murdered, I believed wholeheartedly in the basic goodness of humanity enough that I slept with my bedroom window open whenever I wanted. I often forgot to lock the door of my apartment and, although I knew it was an unwise move, I wasn’t afraid of anything bad ever happening to me. Michael and I had arrived in Jacksonville, Florida in late June and during those first 60 days I had met only the nicest people and had been pleasantly surprised to find that the residents of our apartment complex were friendly, fun-loving, swim-happy people. There were many fellow Navy wives to get to know as well.
After Tammy’s murder, I learned what it felt like to be truly afraid. Suddenly, I was haunted by that large empty field covered with weeds as tall as me located just steps away from my front door. It was now a sinister and frightening thing to look at. Anybody could walk out of those weeds and make their way into my apartment. The news that Tammy’s murderer was still at large made me feel even more anxious and fearful. That killer could be in those weeds. My family and my husband were far away from me, and I felt completely alone.
I love to write and I’ve done a lot of writing. I was 8 years old when I developed a passion for writing. However, 99.9 percent of what I’ve written to date has not been read by anyone but me. It’s true. Most of what I write isn’t even read by my own family or friends. It’s my own fault. I have a deep fear of failure. I hate to do anything important in public. I have a phobia of being less than perfect, and it causes me to avoid creating something other people will see or hear or read. I frustrate myself to no end because of this phobia, because I really love to write and I would love to be a prolific and accomplished writer. I would really love to be a full-time, self-sustaining writer.
Technically, I am a full-time writer. I write technical articles for a living. Most people think technical writing is boring, and while the subjects I write about can be considered boring, I enjoy the challenge of taking unpalatable topics and writing about them in a way that allows people to accomplish the necessary tasks in their daily lives. If what I write in a day’s work helps someone accomplish a certain task of a technical nature, then I feel I have done my job well. People don’t read what I write because it’s entertaining or interesting. They read what I write because they don’t know how to use a certain product, or they have encountered a glitch in the use of a software or hardware or legal product and they must use my writing to move forward with a task. If what I write helps them to overcome that glitch, then I have done my job and I am satisfied.
But just because I write technical articles that help people accomplish a task does not mean that I have reached writing nirvana. Not by a long shot, because what I really want to do is creative writing, essay writing, feature writing. Most of all, I want to write books for a living. I want to spend my days writing about things that are near and dear to my heart. I want to write about what fascinates and intrigues me and captivates my imagination. I want to tell stories, both true stories and stories of pure fiction, maybe even stories that mix truth and fiction.
As far as making a living goes, I want to continue doing that. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction when I am earning a living. I get a buzz when I go online and check my bank account and see that money was deposited in payment for work that I did. I like earning money. I feel like I can never truly count myself as an adult until I understand what it is to provide food and shelter and other necessities for the people I love. That is a level of responsibility that is essential to my sense of self-worth.
That said, I want to earn a real living by writing the things that I want to write about. I want my writing to be all in a day’s work, and I want to accomplish that day’s work in my own home. That is the goal I have set for myself, and I have spent days, weeks, months, even years contemplating how I can accomplish it. I have bought books about the subject. I’ve searched the internet for answers to my dilemma. My desire to lead a freelance writer’s life is something palpable to all five of my senses. Beyond that, it is palpable by a sixth unknowable sense that I cannot yet define.
I have come to understand, after a lifetime of desiring a writer’s life, that a writer’s job is to write despite all the obstacles that make up life. A writer must write even when there aren’t enough hours in a day to do so. One must find pockets of time hidden in the fabric of daily living.
Beyond time constraints, as a writer, I need to turn my angst into the millions of words necessary to create the writing life I crave. I find that amusing because I always thought that it was angst that fueled good writing. Maybe it does, but in my case, it is angst that has many times kept me from sitting down to write. I am an introspective person by nature, but writing down the thoughts that swirl within my brain means a level of introspection that I now admit that I fear. I am afraid of what I will find if I dig deep enough. It is easier most days to leave my angst a mystery. Most days I don’t want to know what’s in there, and I don’t want anyone else to know what’s in there either.
Whether I want to know or don’t want to know, it doesn’t matter now. If I want to be a prolific writer, successful or unsuccessful, it’s time to grab the sturdiest shovel I can find and start digging. It’ll make my stomach hurt sometimes, I’m sure. My stomach is where my deepest feelings make themselves known. I had to pay a lot of money to gastroenterologists only to be told that my stomach was fine. “You need to figure out what you’re feeling that’s making your stomach hurt,” one warm and friendly GI doctor told me. I wanted to grab something heavy and hit him with it. (In my defense, one of my stomach ailments was real, the gastric ulcer I developed the year that my father died. It went away in time.)
I once was an avid diarist, but I stopped because the tasks of motherhood, wifedom, and wage earner left me little time for the musing and thinking that go into keeping a regular diary. Or maybe it was my fear of uncovering my deep angst that made me stop keeping a diary.
When I was 20 years old I bought a used manual typewriter at a neighborhood thrift store in Jacksonville, Florida. I planned to use it to write my way to a successful writing career. The first problem with my plan was that I was taught to type on an IBM Selectric II, a whiz of a machine that took no effort to use at all. The manual thrift store typewriter was a real beast to type on. I did manage to use it to write some essays and meager poetry, but I left it mostly unused in the empty second bedroom of the apartment I shared with my mostly absent sailor husband. I see now in retrospect that I was a very lonely young woman with a lot of unresolved emotions, hopes, and dreams growing inside of me. Those unresolved feelings grew daily when I was alone and continued to grow when my husband was home between workups and cruises. I wrote in my diary less and less as time went on in an effort to keep a lid on my proliferating emotions.
Being a Navy wife was difficult because I was alone more than I was with my husband. When he was away I watched movies on HBO and I went to see movies at the Orange Park Theater on Saturdays. I read a lot of books, and I taught myself to crochet because I had been so impressed by my Grandma Nina’s crochet talent. I attended Navy wives club meetings and I met the wives of the guys that my husband worked with. We exchanged phone numbers and learned a little about each other. But I am a homebody by nature, so I didn’t do a lot of the things that the other Navy wives did. They all had children and they visited each other for play dates and gab fests. A few of them shared about living at each other’s houses while their husbands were at sea. A lot of them hit the clubs when their husbands left. I have never much liked the club scene. As I write this now, it really sinks in how alone I chose to be.
I chose not to get close to the other Navy wives that I knew, with the exception of Maria. We met at the 1984 Enlisted Wives Christmas party. We were on the same team as we played Trivial Pursuit. We hit it off right away. She was a homebody too, and she had two beautiful little boys who reminded me of my little brother back home in San Antonio. Playing with those little boys and spending time with Maria at their apartment was a wonderful antidote to my loneliness. I don’t know who I would’ve become without Maria and little Michael and James in my life. I also realized then that Maria’s time and emotion were devoted to nurturing her children and keeping her household running while her husband was away. I always felt so lighthearted and angst-free when I visited with them.
At home, I kept myself busy, but Maria’s home life with her children made a deep impression on me. Once I caught a glimpse of their family life, I felt more lonely when I was alone. It was loneliness that caused me to want a baby even though I was not prepared for one emotionally or financially. I gave birth to my son in late 1987, the same year that my husband’s sea duty came to an end.
I was happy then because my husband would come home to me every day, and I got to be at home with my beautiful son who brought me immense joy. And so writing was the last thing on my mind, and I made no attempts to write whatsoever. My desire to write left me then. I revived it briefly during the two years that I lived in San Francisco. One cannot live in San Francisco for any length of time without being bitten by a creative bug of some kind. In San Francisco, I took a journaling class for pregnant women, and I kept a journal while I was pregnant with my daughter. Since 1991, when I left San Francisco and returned home to San Antonio, my desire to write has waxed and waned profoundly.
In March of 2016, I was laid off from my job as a technical writer at a large company with a funky, casual atmosphere. It was a job I extremely enjoyed. The layoff caused me to sink into profound depression that lasted four months. When the depression began to lift in August, I started wanting to write again. I started to really want to write again, and I have been whining inwardly about it ever since.
What do I write about? What am I feeling that I must put down on paper? What kind of a writer do I want to be? Can I actually earn a living by writing, or will it always be just an unimportant little hobby? How do I find time to write? If I set aside time and space to write, will I lose time and space with my family? My mind overflowed with too many questions that had no right or wrong answers. My simple truth is that I’ve spent too much time contemplating a writing life instead of living one. But I’m not dead yet, and my fingers and brain still work. Ideas swirl around in my head like soft ramen noodles in a rich, hot broth. My job every day is to put those noodles to work.