This week, I got a much-anticipated check in the mail. My deposit from the apartment, which, up until three weeks ago, I lived in for seven years. When I opened it, I thought I might cry, or confetti might drop, or a gilded mermaid fountain might rise from the carpet in my new living room. But you know, it wasn’t all that exciting. Which totally surprised me.
Of course this, as with everything else, made me think of writing. How writers can work for years on a book or a project. Pour time and money, heart and soul, and blood, sweat, and tears into it. Then, when we’re finally done—whatever that means—a profound sense of “well, shit, what was that all for?” can surface.
I guess I could have titled this post: Well, shit, what was that all for? Because that’s the question I’ve been answering all week. In the answers, treasures abound. Which, of course, I had to share with you.
As for the apartment deposit, I was glad to see the full amount returned, especially after how many muscles I strained and layers of skin I lost scrubbing that damn oven. I was a little let down, given that the deposit was hundreds of dollars less than what they’d raised the rent to over those seven years. I felt grateful because moving is expensive and the last month has been tight financially. But mostly, I felt a profound and unenthusiastic Hmm.
I’ve been so excited for this deposit—to fatten my bank account, to close the chapter on the place I called home, and perhaps even some kind of payback for the last few stressful years of living there (another story). I invested a lot in that place. But getting that check mostly gave me a Hmm. And reminded me that a sense of closure or worthwhile-ness, a return on investment for most things that matter, does not come from money alone, or really, much at all.
My published novel, Putting Makeup on Dead People, came from decades of grief and healing, thousands of dollars of higher education on writing and otherwise, and four years devoted to writing, revising, rewriting and re-revising. That’s just scratching the surface of what I put into it.
As with many writers, since publication, I haven’t earned any money from the book itself. So back to that questions: well shit, what was that all for?
The answer I know is that writing is a layered investment with layered returns.
Yes, like other writers, I have dreams of being so prolific and best-sellery that I could earn enough money to live on writing alone. However, as a little girl, when I started writing, when I first got the taste for it, it wasn’t about money at all. I wrote from a lust for books, a need for stories to heal and survive and make sense of the world, a passion for words, and a deep satisfaction from getting feelings and ideas out of my head and heart and onto the page. From figuring out my life as I wrote.
Now, as I approach my forty-third birthday this November, I ask myself, am I satisfied? I’ve lived in this writer body, actively writing, for at least thirty-five years. In many ways I know that I’m still a young writer, that most likely, I haven’t seen anything yet, which is equal parts exciting and shocking. I get to be a beginner! And, oh shit, I’m only a beginner! Still, I’ve put in time, effort, practice and learning, a down payment on a fancy house worth of education, a sea of tears, three to four tons of angst, and more.
Okay, so what? What, at this point is my return on investment in writing? Allow me to give you a glimpse of my treasure chest.
My R.O.I. in Writing, in writing:
Community. Through claiming myself as writer, I’ve joined the ranks of incredible humans, living and dead. I’ve shared wine, terrible poetry, and excellent cheese with writing groups. I’ve consumed a Great Lake of coffee and conversation with some of the smartest, heartiest, most courageous people on the planet. Sat around tables in classrooms and bars and living rooms with poets and fiction writers, essayists and playwrights, trading insights for revision and process. I evacuated New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina with a best writer friend. Grieved profound losses and tragedies with writers. I’ve drank and danced and made out and fought and rejoiced and skinny-dipped and commiserated with so many beautiful, pain-in-the-ass fantastic writers. Writers get me, get it, get this word urge I can’t shake. I’ve grown up and then regressed with writers, sometimes in the same evening. I’ve done and shared things with writers I won’t ever tell you about.
To be loved by writers is a staggering thing. Writers have bought me drinks and plane tickets and dinner when I’ve been dollar and heart broke. Writers have saved my life, my heart, my sanity. Writers also drive me bonkers because each other writer is a mirror for my own doubt and awkwardness, brilliance and ridiculousness, ego and passion and delight. Sometimes, because of this, it’s hard to be around other writers. It’s like being in a dressing room trying on bathing suits, or a wall-to-wall reflecting dance studio for a beginner’s class, or a hotel bed with a new lover in the Poconos. I can’t escape my own bulgy, bumpy mortality. But wow is it fun and wow, does it bring me alive. Loving other writers also helps me to love myself, tender little silly sprout that I am, and well, isn’t that the work beneath all of the other work?
As for readers, well, that deserves a whole separate article. The way that writing allows me to connect with another human. The way words break barriers of time and space, the way they zip from heart to heart. The way it feels when someone takes the time to say, “I read what you wrote, and it mattered to me.” The conversations and friendships opened. I am awash in awe and gratitude. My cup runneth over so much that I’ve had to get a mammoth trough.
Vocation. I’ve built a career rooted in writing, one that sustains me now, financially, emotionally, creatively. I get to lead writing retreats and workshops. I get to work with new writers and old writers and people who won’t ever call themselves writers but just love the business out of words, playing with them, or reflecting through them. I get to send out a newsletter every month and every time, people read it, and respond. (see community above). My work meetings are about words. My work hours are about words. People let me read their words and respond to them, edit them, engage with them. I get to gather groups to write, make space for other humans to find and use their voices. How amazing is that?
Confidence. For a long time I wasn’t confident in my body, my beauty, my capacity for romance, and my financial savvy, among other things, and I still wobble with all of this and more. But no matter how or where else I feel like an unqualified weakling idiot, words have always given me confidence. Writing has always been sturdy enough to stand on, enough to bear the weight of me, enough to lift me above insecurity.
Magic. From the fairy tales and myths I read as a little girl, to the prayers and incantations I use now in ritual, to the free writing I do to converse with my deepest self, words have thrown open a gate between worlds. Thanks to writing, it’s a regular witchy wonderland over here.
Healing. Which has to do with magic. Which is about transformation. Writing has healed me the loss of my dad, the loss of other loved ones, the loss of virginity and a feeling of safety as a woman in this world, the loss of a marriage, the loss of relationships, jobs, a sense of security. Loss of trust and income and belief in myself. Through words, I am a phoenix. I rise from the ashes of my life again and again. I write my way from compost to new green shoot, almost daily.
Process. Writing has given me a trust in the process, the process of writing words and the process of living. Every time I gather a group of writers to facilitate a retreat or a workshop, and we all face the tyranny and terror of the blank page, I can always come back to a profound sense of trust that if we each just give ourselves to the page, to the words, the words will take us somewhere new and surprising. The words will offer themselves to us, in gifts remarkable, lovely, and breathtaking.
Voice. This may be the biggest one of all. I found my voice and I’ve learned how to keep finding it, everyday. To keep excavating and refining. To enjoy the dig for it. To respect the feminine power of it. To celebrate when such a unique sound comes out of me—like a perfect middle C sung clear and bright, or that one remarkable fart that blares like an angel trumpet, or a pure giggle, or a wail that erects a temple of sacred silence—that I am stopped in my tracks and so grateful for this tangled dance with words. Through writing, I’ve learned to speak for and know myself as a woman. No small thing. A big and essential thing, in fact.
This list, this accumulation, this wealth of return brings me to my knees. And if you, dear writer reader, have the time and inclination to take on such a question, I highly recommend it.
I don’t know how much more time I’ll have to write. How long my life will be or how much of it I’ll get to devote putting words to a page. I don’t know if I’ll ever make a million from a book I write. The thought of getting that check is seductive. I’ll tell you what. It’s tempting to say that receiving it would make it all worth it, would be such a satisfying “deposit” to get back, to finally be The Return on my investment in writing.
But I know it would be a lie. That’s not what I’ve worked for. Do I want it? Yes. To say I don’t would also be a lie. But it’s not what I’ve worked for. It’s not the motivation that gets me up in the morning and writing. And as much as culture and media and American values might say otherwise, my hands and heart are not empty without a seven-figure check
Just as the deposit check I got in the mail yesterday does not reflect all I put into making my last apartment home. Or all it gave me—a soft place to land when my marriage, career and identity combusted. A place to rebuild myself and relearn what I liked to eat and when, what I wanted to devote my time and energy to, how I liked to sleep and how to move through the world, without a partner. A place to build a community of friends. To host retreats and build a new business. A place to welcome a new love and a new set of relationship challenges and delights. Even without that deposit, my hands and heart are not empty.
As I take stock, as I am right now, in this woman writer’s body, I am deeply, profoundly grateful for all I’ve gotten back from writing, which is exponentially more than anything I’ve put into it and more regal than any royalties I might receive one day.
What I’ve gotten back reflects what I’ve put into it, which is me. In giving myself to words, I’ve gotten a whole me.
The relationship I understand with writing is a love affair. A startling adventure in which no matter what I invest, the return will be a bit of a mystery. I wrote nine drafts of a novel that’s still sitting on a proverbial shelf. Four drafts of another. Two of one more. I’ve started thousands of essays. I’ve finished hundreds. I’ve spent almost two years on a memoir, and who knows where that’s going? I’m submitting parts of it and accumulating rejections. I blow poems like kisses on Facebook and sometimes people read them and like them. Sometimes not. Will my words be read or will they not?
The only thing I can count on is that if I give myself to writing, if I trust the process, it will gift me in return, in ways remarkable and lovely and breathtaking.
My heart and hands may ache from what I give. My heart and hands may be covered with ink and blood and tears. But they are not empty. They hold community, magic, and confidence. Healing, vocation, and voice. For all of this, writing, I say thank you and thank you and thank you.
And for you, dear reader, I say thank you and thank you and thank you. And if you decide to take stock yourself, I’d love to know what answers you uncover. I’d love to respond: I read what you wrote, and it mattered to me.
Thank you so much for reading. You might notice that I don’t have a space for comments, but I’m certainly open to conversation about what’s written here. If you’re so inspired, feel free to start a conversation with me via the contact form on the homepage of this site.