I Do Not Have Dreadlocks, or Do I?

I wrote the poem, “I Do Not Have Dreadlocks,” just before turning 40, when my youngest was still a baby. My youngest turned eight years old yesterday and I have dreadlocks now, at least sort of, kind of, maybe. Never say never.

 

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I had two wool dreadlocks woven into my hair. Shall I get more?
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Photo featuring my favorite necklace: Mjolnir (Thor’s Hammer) , a gift from my husband.

On Manifesting One’s Dreams

Just over 15 years ago, I got divorced. At the time, I was a perfectionist (and still in recovery today). Divorce didn’t fit into my story about perfection. To complicate matters, in high school, I’d been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I’d taken that silly vote as a directive: You must succeed. Plus, I held a very narrow definition of success back then (case in point: I went to law school when I wanted to get my Masters in English, focusing on creative writing). A divorce certainly didn’t sound anything like “success;” instead it reeked of failure. After the divorce, this straight-A student (although law school cured me of my straight A streak), felt like I was walking around with a huge red “F” on my shirt.

But life goes on. You eventually move on. You become kinder with yourself (and hopefully with others) and you give yourself more grace. You develop new goals, like becoming a certified yoga instructor and going back to school and getting your MFA. You begin making lists of venues where you’d like to see your work. One of those lists (written in your journal, where you are known to create many different kinds of lists) included getting published on Jennifer Pastiloff’s The Manifest-Station. (Jen happens to be both a writer hero of mine and a yogi hero!)

Woo hoo! Woo hoo!

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Profile of my daughter watching Polica at Eaux Claires Fest 2015

 

Outside Writerly Longing

On September 30, 2016, I was privileged to spend time with the Editorial Director of Beacon Press (“Beacon”), Gayatri Patnaik, via a phone interview. Patnaik has been at Beacon for fourteen years. Speaking with Patnaik brought me back to some of my own career memories. I spent time on the editorial side of publishing, in an acquiring editor role, as well as Publisher of the West Academic imprint. If I’d stayed in my role at West, I too would be celebrating my fourteenth year with that publishing business.

In talking to Patnaik, I was reminded of the joys (and yes, some of the stresses) of working in publishing. The interview served as an interesting touchstone for me; it provided both a glimpse into my past and a contemplative look towards my potential future, as I consider what road to take—from a career standpoint—with my MFA in Creative Nonfiction.

As much as I’ve wanted to be a writer—and spent a good deal of time bemoaning my lack of time to write when I was in an editorial role (a review of my religiously maintained journals reveals how often I expressed longing for time to write back then)—I find myself wondering if I might not want to return to a publishing career. I’ve been known to say that acquiring books and assisting authors in the “birthing” of their books can be nearly as exciting as publishing your own book (although I’ve never published a book, so I don’t actually have a basis for comparison).

To the above point, Patnaik was excited to tell me about one of “her” books—meaning one that she signed and edited—that was to publish just days after our interview. The book, entitled “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, written by Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz and Dina Gilo-Whitaker, is also part of a new series that Patnaik is developing. To get a feel for the kind of writing in this book, check out the blog entry by one of the book’s authors, called “Surfing and Indigeneity,” which can be found on Beacon Broadside.

I think it would be an honor and privilege to be a Beacon editor, to be part of the kind of intellectual, progressive, yet accessible titles that Beacon publishes. Title’s like Beacon’s backlist title and top-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, which is a book that changed my life (multiple times).

Even after we discussed Patnaik’s typical day at Beacon, which often involves back-to-back meetings, and I learned that Patnaik’s hands-on editing tends to take place during her evenings and weekends, I still asked her (feeling a little foolish) if she too was a writer. Ms. Patnaik took my question in good humor, for which I was very grateful (at every juncture, she was a gracious interviewee). She acknowledged that a fair number of those drawn to editorial careers have aspirations of writing (some manage to do both); she is not one of them. She has, however, always loved books and reading. She often advises would-be writers, applying for editorial positions, to consider taking a job that supports their writing and leaves them more time to write.

I felt somewhat in awe (and envious) of Patnaik’s ability to inhabit her role so passionately and completely, without feeling the uncomfortable polarity of wanting something else. I said, “you probably have a lot of peace with your role.” In reply to my comment, she said, “I think so.”

I realize now that, to her, my question may have seemed “out of context” because she herself was not privy to all of the inner conflict that I suffered from while working as an editor, always longing to be writing my own words. During this time “off” that I’ve taken to raise my son, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with longing to return to my prior role in the publishing world, even though this time has allowed me the opportunity to explore my own writing and pursue an MFA.

I find myself wondering if the desire to write is more curse than blessing. People who manage to live outside this longing seem such well-balanced, healthy individuals. To exist outside the writerly drive, seems kind of like bliss. Perhaps, after this mid-career writing and parenting hiatus, I’ll reenter the publishing world with balanced contentment.

Chasing the Barbie Dream House

I am entering the final phase of my MFA program, with two classes this semester and a publishing internship next spring. My Intro to Publishing class has us writing blog entries this fall. For this first blog post, we are asked to consider what it means to be “accomplished.”

As I contemplate the term “accomplished,” for some reason I think of a pianist. Even though I suffered eight years of lessons, I do not consider myself (nor am I objectively) an accomplished pianist. An accomplished pianist likely practices far more than I ever did or has some inherent musical talent, or—most likely—a combination of those two factors. An accomplished pianist can sight read difficult music. An accomplished pianist has successful recitals and concerts under her belt; she’s also memorized songs to play impromptu concerts, on demand.

Similarly, although I’ve had wonderful writing teachers and a few years of disciplined writing training (“lessons,” if you will) over the course of my MFA program, I don’t yet feel like an accomplished writer. I could, however, agree that I am “more accomplished” than I was before beginning my MFA. I understand the various sub-genres of creative nonfiction with an intimacy that I lacked before the program. I can also name both trailblazers and current writers within each sub-genre. I might even be able to teach beginning CNF writers a few things, just as I am competent to help my six-year old with the piano lessons he began taking this summer.

In writing, I still equate “accomplished” with “published.” Although I’ve been published in a variety of online publications, many before I started this program—back when I had more time to work on submissions—I probably won’t feel “accomplished” until or unless I have a book sitting on my shelf, with my name on its spine, or my desk is lined with a collection of print magazines and/or literary journals that contain my work. Until then, I’ll likely continue to feel like a fraud when I tell people I am a writer in response to the question, “What do you do?” Sometimes, I think I should just come out with it and admit, “I’m a fake writer,” before being asked the inevitable follow-up, “What do you write?”

I am reminded of how, as a child, I wanted a canopy bed—one with a pink gingham canopy. While I did get the pink gingham bedspread, it wasn’t quite right. At that same time, a friend of mine owned a Barbie Dream House. It was three stories high and had a working elevator, which operated on a rudimentary pulley system. Her multiple Barbie dolls drove a hot pink plastic sports car. I owned but one true Barbie; the rest were cheap plastic “fakes,” with shoulders that easily snapped off and they drove around empty Kleenex boxes or my brothers’ battered G.I. Joe Jeep. One Christmas, I received a plastic Barbie suitcase fashioned to look like a jetliner (I’m certain my mother found it on clearance). It wasn’t terribly fun and it could never match the Dream House.

Not quite right tends to remain not quite right.

I may always equate success as a writer with being published and, because I equate publishing with success, I may struggle to believe I am accomplished without a cadre of print clips or a published book that says “Heidi Fettig Parton” on the spine. That elusive book is my adult-sized Barbie Dream House. Still, what I have learned in my MFA program is that a published book doesn’t make a life. The day after one’s book publishes, she still has to do the laundry (maybe Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t), worry about book sales, and continue the search for her corner of happiness in the world.

I recently read an article about writer and bookstore owner, Ann Patchett in The Guardian. The article quotes Patchett as having said, “[With] every book I think: well, if this one’s really successful, maybe I won’t have to make dinner any more.” She also comments on how there are more important things to her than writing novels. Patchett adds, “The thing that makes me feel really alive is figuring out how I can frighten other people into doing good.”

I am willing to sit with the notion that I don’t require a Barbie Dream House to feel complete (and acceptance alone is an accomplishment). I don’t have time for that right now, however; I still have to make dinner.

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I suppose this was taken in my Barbie Dream House phase. The local newspaper interviewed me about my Judy Blue obsession (I suppose the local library tipped them off). Just to be clear, I wanted to be Judy Blume someday.