It all started back in the summer of 2011. Tom Rogers and I were trading pieces of writing back and forth via email. At one point I wrote: “Have you contemplated publication of a collection of your essays? It seems to me that there could be real value in that.” Little did I know…
Almost exactly two years ago I wrote this post for AMV. It is all about seeking permissionâ€” from the commenters, contributors, and readers of AMV, from God, and from myselfâ€”to start reclaiming things I had given up or lost. I framed it all in the context of writing and mother-guilt but, reading it now, I can see I wasnâ€™t actually asking for permission to write. I was asking for something much, much larger.
Two years ago, my life was a mess and I wasnâ€™t sure I was going to live much longer to fix it. My marriage was a destructive one and it was slowly killing me. I was having increasing amounts of suicidal ideations and my children were acting out in more and more ways. The things I was working so hard to fix (read: change, hide, or cover-up) werenâ€™t getting fixed and I was finding myself under more and more stress trying to compensate for all the things that happened behind closed doors.Â The gory details of my marriage donâ€™t belong on the Internetâ€”they are private experiences and I intend to keep them that wayâ€”but hereâ€™s what Iâ€™m willing to say about it: it wasnâ€™t tabloid-bad but it was bad.
Two years ago, I was waiting for someoneâ€”the commenters, contributors, and readers of AMV, God, or myselfâ€”to give me permission to stop living half a life, to be a full person, to get out of my marriage.
I was so scared when I wrote that post. Trying to keep myself and my kids afloat inside the context of my marriage was fairly all-consuming and confusing and, in June 2012, the parts of myself that I had given up listening to were telling me quite loudly that it was make-it-or-break-it time. These were the parts that urged me to write, the parts that urged me to keep praying and trusting God. They were also the same parts that told me my marriage was ruining my life. At thirty years oldÂ with four small children, so much of my life was a pile of things I didnâ€™t want and it was time to make it into something else or let it break me down, maybe permanently.
Over the course of my marriage I had found that the more time I spent writing the more cognitive dissonance increased. Flannery Oâ€™Connor said, â€œI write because I donâ€™t know what I think until I read what I say.â€ Joan Didion echoed that when she wrote, â€œI donâ€™t know what I think until I write it down.â€ Whenever I sat down to write the things that kept cropping up were loss and fear and darkness and surrender. The differences between what I presented, that far too common Sunday Face we all know so well, and my reality were strangulating.
Dropping into writing, committing to it, meant hearing all my parts and honoring the truth that was waiting for me there. There was so, so, so much pain and no matter how hard I worked and prayed and wished my marriage was still a mess and I was failing. Big time. Failing at being a present, engaged mother; at fulfilling the Mormon cultural ideals I held at my core; at being a writer; at being a whole human.Â There were so many things I had to keep hidden I couldnâ€™t engage in any form of honesty and, turns out, honesty is where a hell of a lot of success, both in writing and life, starts.
It took almost an entire year for the pieces to fall into place, but in May of 2013 God told me it was time to get out. In June of 2013 I moved my husband out of our family home and watched my childrenâ€™s hearts simultaneously break and start to beat easier. In July of 2013 I filed my divorce papers and finally took an honest look at the seven million broken pieces that were my heart and spirit. In August of 2013 I put my kids in daycare and went back to work. In October of 2013 the divorce was finalized. In March of 2014 our marital house sold and I moved to a new stake, where I could build a life for just my kids and I with a clean slate.
Itâ€™s been a year of horribly hard things.
But itâ€™s also been a year of honesty and a year of realizing that not all the failures are mine. My husband failed me. My marriage failed me.Â In fact, when it comes right down to it, looking back at all the things I failed at while I was trying to fix my marriage I donâ€™t see so much failure. I see someone doing the best she could in an impossible situation and maybe she wasnâ€™t perfect but maybe being perfect, keeping up with all the things she thought she was supposed to be, was never the point.
Jesus said, â€œAnd you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.â€Â Like pretty much every person ever, failure, my own and those of the people around me, were (are!) a massive part of my truth. I had (have!) to accept them in order to be set free.
Freedom, it turns out, is trickier than I thought it was going to be.
When I imagined being out of my marriage. . .well, actually, I never could fill that in. It was a giant blank space. It felt exactly the same as sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper. Throat tightening. Heart pounding. Expectations rising.Â Mind racing. No clue what on earth was supposed to go there.
So Iâ€™m doing with my life what I do with blank pages: Iâ€™m folding it in half and then in half again because filling small bits of blankness is less overwhelming.
Just like novels get written one word at a time, new lives get written one day at a time. The key is the doing of it.
I get up every morning and I donâ€™t think about the vast expanse known as The Rest of My Life That Isnâ€™t What I Thought it Would Be. Yes, I still say things to myself like, â€œThis is not what I signed up for.â€ Being a single mom to four kids isnâ€™t easy. Trying to figure out how to make enough money to provide for four kids when my heart is yearning to just get an MFA and dream up novels and poems and teach for the rest of my life isnâ€™t easy. Dealing with being young and divorced in a family-oriented Church isnâ€™t easy. Waiting on God to reveal promised blessings and relying on the strength of my covenants isnâ€™t easy.
But I can rewrite my thinking now. My life might not be what I expected but it is something that, with Godâ€™s help and guidance, I can shape. Filling it in, shaping it, writing my own life might not be easy but itâ€™s something I can do. One word, one day, one draft at a time.
My days are now shaped by work and filling in the gaps with things I love: gardening, playing with my kids, exercise, reading, and writing. I still donâ€™t have a novel to hold up as validation or proof of success. Kinda like I donâ€™t have a marriage to hold up as validation for my life choices or as proof of success both as a functional adult and a Mormon. (And believe me, I want that validation so deeply!) But every day I put words on the page and while thousands and thousands of them get edited out and the ones that stay might not ever add up to any great work they fill the empty space, both on the page and in my life. And, sometimes, I even enter that charmed space of inspiration and unexpected moments of musicality and profundity and discovery occur.
It is incredibly satisfying.
Word by word, day by day, the pieces of my broken heart and spirit are being forged into something new, something bigger with nooks and crannies that are healing and filling out. There really is an art to being a whole human and itâ€™s one that I figure, like writing, Iâ€™ll spend the rest of my life practicing.
The best part, though? Iâ€™m no longer asking for permission because, it turns out, I never actually needed permission. I only needed to write enough to be able to hear myself think.
As a non-fiction literary form, the essay is sometimes left out when we consider literatureâ€”fiction, drama and poetry seem to get the bulk of attention. But the essay is a well-developed and commonly used form, and I’ve even heard claims (can’t remember where at the moment) that Mormons excel at the essay.
So what makes it different than other forms? Is there something about the essay that is more appealing or more conducive to Mormon thought? The following article might answer these questions to some degree.