The large agave plant outside my window fell over and died several weeks ago. Earlier, in the spring, it was revealed to have been housing a rat’s nest. My dogs spent hours digging it up, and were rewarded with a rat snack. Then a gusty wind ultimately blew the agave over, and my dad and I noticed it had been growing over a spinkler head.
Just too much to handle. Roots rotted from water and torn up from dog claws and rat life. It was done giving of itself.
After the plant died, completely keeled over and showing its underside, new life immediately sprung from it. Or rather, life that already existed but was now choosing to congregate on the agave. A massive cluster of bees crawled over the bottom of the plant, the juices exposed for them to suck up. A steady trail of ants marched up the long curved arms. The occasional fly braved the masses for a taste.
Perhaps part of me should have felt sad for this agave. Its life was reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s, The Giving Tree. The tree in the story gave and gave and gave until it was all used up:
“I have nothing left.
I am just an old stump.”
—Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
But I suppose that I saw the using up as more of a circle of life kind of thing. It was fully used to its deepest potential, and beyond. Life continues on, even after death. The works of the dead can feed the living.
I saw this dead plant and I wanted to be like it.
It doesn’t feel like being used and abused when I’m living my fullest expression. Even if all people want from me one day is my written words, that’s what I want to give them.
I like the usefulness of nature. I feel useful like that agave when I’m writing what I’m meant to be writing.
This essay is stemming from a recurring sentiment that I seem to have trouble grasping onto. We repeat the same lessons over and over until we learn them, and I’m trying to learn this one. Even if people get sick of hearing about it.
I’m realizing that I’m not just a plant. A vague, overarching plant. I am a specific type of plant. I can only grow one way.
The lesson I keep repeating is that I betray my writing. I don’t listen to myself, the things my heart is trying to tell me.
In the midst of NaNoWriMo, the month of international fiction noveling, the event I’ve participated in almost every year since I was 15, I suddenly quit working on my novel because I truly, truly don’t want to spend my time writing fiction. It was painful to set my essay and memoir work aside this month, and I kept shushing that pain for the sake of my Novel™.
More than once, I’ve discovered journal entries I’ve written since entering my twenties—that I find fiction writing to be extremely painful, that essay and memoir writing feels so much more flowy and enjoyable. I wrote about it in 2016, while working on a novel over Thanksgiving break in the woods in Northern California. I wrote about it in 2018, the year I discovered self-help and was trying to find my voice as a creative person.
But year after year I can’t stop being embarrassed by the urge towards this “lesser” “egotistical” form of writing.
It’s not a unique feeling. Many writers have an aversion to “navel-gazing,” to mining their own lives and stories for the sake of their literary work, which is what the author Melissa Febos discovered while teaching nonfiction workshops.
She had confronted this revulsion earlier in her own life, and talks about it in her book, Body Work:
At twenty-six, I was an MFA student in fiction, deep into what I believed was a Very Important Novel about addiction and female sexuality. Then I took a nonfiction craft class for which we were asked to write a short memoir. Though the context of my novel drew heavily from my own experience, I had never written any kind of nonfiction. The twenty-page essay I drafted about my years as a professional dominatrix was the most urgent thing I had ever written. When he read it, my professor insisted that I drop whatever I was working on and write a memoir.
I cringed. Who was I, a twenty-six-year-old woman, a former junky and sex worker, to presume that strangers should find my life interesting? I had already learned that there were few more damning presumptions than that of a young woman thinking her own story might be meaningful. Besides, I was writing a Very Important Novel.
“No way,” I told my professor. I was determined to stick to my more humble presumptions that strangers might be interested in a story made up by a twenty-six-year-old former junky sex worker.
Do you see how easy it is to poke holes in this logic?
—Melissa Febos, Body Work
I don’t want to keel over and die and have my insides be nothing but dust, which is what I fear will happen if I keep pushing aside this deep intrinsic desire to write what’s on my heart. To interact with tiny moments in the world. If I look into my future and see myself on my death bed, and all that surrounds me are fiction novels—I feel icy fear. To be clear, it is not the being surrounded by books that scares me. That sounds delightful. But to leave an entire legacy of made up stories is something that just doesn’t feel right.
My natural mind doesn’t think in fiction. I don’t communicate with these made up characters. They kept me company when I was a teenager, but the more I get to know myself, the less satisfying their worlds are.
I think, why am I making up a character, a setting, a story, when an entire essay bursts out of me just from watching bugs eat a dead plant? The thought of missing all these tiny moments, of not having the time or energy or focus to expand on the little pieces of life, gives me real anxiety.
Essay writing is how I like to translate the world. I see something, hear something, experience something, and I wonder how I can distill that thing into a piece of a story. How I can turn this thin slice of life into an experience that can be felt by others.
The missable moments in life are my favorite ones, and the ones I most want to write about.
Maybe this is stemming from a need to be seen. A need to speak my piece without any fictional filters. To tell my own story and be my full self. Maybe in several years I will be able to resume fiction writing.
But I cannot linger there. I cannot give anymore excuses. For the unforeseeable future, I’ve let go of fiction writing. It’s done.
Since halting work on my novel, I’ve written almost a dozen essay drafts. They flow out of me like honey. I feel lush and full of nectar. Pierce my veins. Lick me up. The world is rich and here and now.
Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem, Bloom:
To be a Flower, is profound
—Emily Dickinson, Bloom (1058)
And I understand that.
I am a plant.
I look like a human with unlimited choices and freewill galore, but in actuality, I am rooted to the ground and can only grow one specific way.
Whichever way I grow, you can have all of me. Just let me grow the way I need to, otherwise my body will turn to dust and won’t feed even one single Bee.
My Emily Dickinson year
I’ve been calling 2021 my “Emily Dickinson year,” because I made the firm and intentional decision to be a loner and a homebody. I’ve been turning down dates, I haven’t gone out and made new friends, I’ve done very few “activities.” Basically, I’ve done nothing but sit at home.
Please don’t misunderstand: my decision to “stay home” has nothing to do with the lockdown. I have exactly zero fucks to give to the government.
But it was the quarantine orders that got my gears spinning around the concept of being at home, and wondering why so many people felt trapped there. Instead of fighting the system in a knee jerk reactionary way, I decided to go inward.
If Emily Dickinson hardly left her home her entire life and could fill her head and heart with so much wonder on the small parcel of earth she inhabited—why couldn’t I do that for a year? Why couldn’t I, too, partake in “the spreading wide my narrow Hands to gather Paradise,” as she wrote in her poem, “I dwell in Possibility”?
I didn’t quite have “become one of the greatest poets in American history” type expectations, but I did want to see what happened when I removed external stimuli and the “fear of missing out” from my body. It was a task that required much meditation and journaling, because external stimulation is an addiction and FOMO is a nervous system response.
It’s crazy to be able to actually admit this, but after several months of this I genuinely don’t give a shit what other people are doing or what they think of me and my life. Not a defensive reaction, but a deep settledness in my bones. It feels like a superpower.
I refer to last year as my V For Vendetta year. In an aesthetic sense, I did shave my head like Natalie Portman (although I was smiling giddily rather than crying). But on a deeper level, I felt like everything I thought I knew about life and the world had been stripped away. Everything opened up to me, layers at a time. Things are still opening up to me, but last year was my first fresh shock of “the world doesn’t work the way I assumed it did.” The head shaving was basically a physical marker to represent how different I felt inside, to represent the pivotal moment when I realized that losing everything wasn’t the end, but just the beginning of my new life.
This year, things are quieter. I’ve come to peace with many things. Even the things I desire to change and am actively changing, I’m still at peace with their current states. I’ve given myself a healthy dose of peace, stillness, meditation, and journaling—and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, was an absolute game changer for me. I began to implement her morning pages back in November (three daily pages of handwritten stream of consciousness journaling). It was like I suddenly had an answer for every existential problem that came up. If I could only recommend one book for the rest of my life, it would be this one.
Mediation was a huge thing for me too. Learning to shut off the live stream of thoughts, the barrage of information, the 24/7 movie screen. I came to realize that I was the source of everything I needed. Nothing external is what makes up me as a human being. I don’t need to be fed constant entertainment via social media, movies, friends, events, hobbies. All I need is within me, if I’d give myself a goddamn minute to tap into it.
And lastly just good old fashioned peace and quiet. Sitting in stillness in the desert of Nevada. The desert is a great place to sit in observation, because at first glance it comes across as lifeless. But the more you sit, the more you see. The desert is ablaze with life.
I’d find a trail of ants and follow it, looking for where they ended and where they began. I’d watch a hummingbird make a pass through the backyard flowers every afternoon until one day I realized I was a little bit in love with him. One day, after weeks of watching him, he flew right up to my face and hovered there for a second. I’d listen to the various bird sounds and I swear that one of them sounds like “AL-LY?” A high pitched timbre, the note rising at the end. I watched the lizards sneak out of the flowers and bushes and crawl onto the warm pavement to do push-ups. I went on long walks, in the afternoon in the winter and at night when it started getting hot again. One hour, two hours, three hours in the desert. I’d walk and walk, marching to the mantra “solvitur ambulando.” Latin for “it is solved by walking.”
And notes. Constant note taking. Filling notebooks and index cards. I finally began to develop my writing voice, finally began working on a couple books, writing poetry, looking to submit some things, started pursuing work as a freelance proofreader and editor.
I experimented daily. I would find what worked and what didn’t, and I had a system for actually making these realizations. Quiet, peace, solitude, a practice in awareness, note-taking and journaling. Creating what I wanted bit by bit each day by figuring out what I wanted, what I didn’t want, and closing the gap between them.
“. . . failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
—J. K. Rowling, 2008 Harvard commencement speech
Sitting at home, opening my mind, and taking note of the daily changes in my heart and brain has made me into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I’m proud of who I am. My younger self would be in awe of me, and a bit intimidated. Some things are still in the works to fruition, but everything I’ve dreamed of for myself is coming to pass. Not even six months into my Emily Dickinson year, and she’s already changed my life. She knew something about living.
The home (even living at your parents’ home at the age of 25) is a wildly expansive place, if you let it.