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.