The Home Stretch, Part I: It Ain’t Pretty

After earning his high school diploma, my then-boyfriend left home for New Mexico Military Institute, where he earned an Associates Degree before going to UNM for his Bachelors. One of his worst punishments came when a superior was inspecting his squad. Instead of looking straight ahead, he followed her movements with his eyes, until she stood right in front of him and said, “Don’t look at me. I ain’t pretty.”

He replied, “No ma’am, you’re not.”

Vessels, my memoir-in-progress, ain’t pretty right now.

Much like there is a huge difference between the fantasies I had of children and the reality of raising them, there is a huge difference between the fantasy of writing and actually writing. During the busy fall of 2010, when I was teaching four workshops a week and coordinating two major community events, I would tune out at a stoplight or write a line in my journal about how great it would be to have all the time I needed to write. “If only…,” I would say at seven thirty on a school morning when I knew I had to leave the office and step back into a house in full swing to make lunches and clean faces and help kids pick out clothes and make beds. (How my mom got more than two of us off to school and managed to teach first graders all day is beyond me!) I pictured myself pretty much as I am now, sitting at a sunny table in a quiet home, writing, writing, writing; only the writing in my fantasies was beautiful and easy. I figured that if I just had a quiet space and lots of time, everything that had been challenging about the book would cease to be an issue.

The good news about raising children and making time to write a book is that both endeavors have a way of expanding the heart and soul to create room for the intense commitment and focus they require. Both have a way of deepening faith to help us make decisions and move forward even if we are uncertain or afraid. Like children, stories make us feel special, chosen. I want to say to them, to God, “Really? Me? Of all the people in the world, you’ve asked me to help nurture these beings into maturity?”

And therein lies the hard thing. I’ve written before that I am the only one who can write my book. Even on days when the writing is tough, I still want to be the one to write this book. It’s just that some days I want the writing to be prettier. I’ve always been one of those in workshop who had lines that other writers liked to read aloud. It’s been awhile since I’ve written something I feel is worthy of recitation. These are days of slogging through pages and pages of crap I wrote about the hard relationship I left a month before my grandma was diagnosed with cancer. I started writing almost as soon as we broke up seven years ago, diatribes, conversations between us that usually ended with my crying and his telling me not to, whiny stream of consciousness ranting about how invisible I felt, how unfair and mean I thought he was. I wanted to come out looking like the good guy. Then I wanted future readers to think me fair and compassionate. Then I felt guilty because we said we wouldn’t write about each other. Then I felt indignant because who is he to tell me what I can and can’t write? He’s not the boss of me.

Now I want to understand. Understanding takes time.

The truth is, he has changed. We both have. The truth is, though I was mature in many ways at age thirty-one, I had a lot of emotional work to do before I could expect to find a healthy and loving man with whom to enter into a relationship. I expected the relationship to take care of me in ways that no relationship could, in ways that I was unprepared and unwilling to care for myself. I know now that this was a recipe for disaster. I knew this before I met Henry. And now I know in a deeper way because I am writing. I am writing ugly, what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.” These are first and second and third and fourth drafts, some just as shitty as when I started. Shitty and absolutely necessary.

It’s not easy looking at an ugly picture of me, a picture of Michelle when she was thirty-one and depressed and lonely.

“Don’t look at me. I ain’t pretty,” she wants to say.

“No, ma’am, you’re not,” I say back. “And it’s okay. You don’t have to be.”

Read “The Final Stretch: It Ain’t Pretty, Part II” on Tuesday, January 31.

Published in: on January 25, 2011 at 2:37 pm  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Love this one Comadre, there is a lot of truth in what you just expressed. And just FYI, I am loving my sentences that you send each day, and most if not all I read to my classmates and they love them. Its a wonderful lesson to see an artist share their true cracks and colors, the vulnerability connects us all. Gracias!

    • Comadre, you’ve known me through some of the ugly.
      Thank you for receiving the sentences with such love and for sharing them with your classmates. I love imagining that beautiful circle of artists taking in these words and giving them a home.

  2. Thanks for sharing this Michelle. I’m laboring over the fourth shitty draft of a story and I always forget that around this time I always feel like a failure for not putting down the words in the perfect order with the appropriate flair the first time. Funny — I, too, was thinking of Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts” just today. So glad I’m not alone.

    • How do we forget this stuff? Crazy how, in the middle of things, now feels like it will last forever, and memories of our proven ability to write well are completely erased. I keep Bird by Bird closest to my writing desk as a reminder of “shitty first drafts” and the “one-inch picture frame,” but sometimes I forget to look up. Glad we have each other to remember who we are and what we do.

  3. Brave, fierce writing, Michelle–you go.

  4. Maybe it ain’t pretty, but I’m sure it’s gritty…

    Didn’t you just see True Grit? Is there a message in there?

    I have total faith in you and your writing, m’dear.
    It’s all part of the process, which is bigger than any one moment or you.

    I love you, Hilary

  5. Loved the thread of “not pretty.” What I’ve heard of your process during this memoir may not have been at all pretty, but it surely was beautiful.

    • Thank you for the words of encouragement, Mary, Hilary, and Mary.
      And Ms. Oishi, I can’t wait to hold your beautiful new book of poetry in my hands.

  6. what I love about reading your journey, Michelle, is that you so beautifully capture so many feelings I’ve had as mother, writer, teacher. It astounds me. I love that someone is putting this story out there. It’s a gift.

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