Me and Mr. Kappus

I’m nineteen, crying outside of the classroom when my paper on Lolita comes back with a “B” and the remark that I had let myself be seduced by Humbert Humbert. I’m twenty, struggling with the rigidity of the French essay form. Thèse, antithèse, synthèse. I’m twenty-one, taking it personally when Rilke writes to Franz Kappus that he shouldn’t bother writing unless writing is his air, his water, his wine. I freak out. I don’t think I would die without writing. I bury my scrawling journals in deep drawers, quit the women’s literary mag, and turn back to books. Let me be clear. Books that someone else had written.

Reading was my first love, and reading is my solace when writing fails me. I’m twelve years old, reading all the classics from the one room library down the street. While other kids are in summer camp testing out French kissing by licking the metal of one another’s braces, I am making daily pilgrimages to a squat cinderblock building. Attached to a defunct school and a seldom open thrift store, the town library is no bigger than my childhood bedroom. A shelf of mysteries, a shelf of picture books, a shelf of classics. No, no, and, well, okay. I read them all. At the age of twelve, I can’t say I captured much of War & Peace and even less of Gulliver’s Travels, but I marched through them, cover to cover, determined. Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, The Three Musketeers. Oh, how I loved that Alexandre Dumas.

At first the love is less about the story, and more about the process of being absorbed by words. When, in high school, I meet Zora Neale Hurston and Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, that changes. Product eclipses process. My love deepens. It is to this love I return, injured by a dead poet, at the end of college. A French literature degree in my hands and an empty space in my handbag where I used to keep a pen and a pad of paper. I have failed Rilke’s test. I’m not good enough to create, but I can enjoy, dissect, summarize.

I can emulate. It starts with Virginia Woolf. I want to be her. Her quiet, married life, her freedom made possible by the walls that surround her. I fall so deeply in love with Hermann Hesse that I wander around barefoot for a year, with Huysmans that I move to France. Occasionally, I put pen to paper. I stray into bad, juvenile poetry. I write snippets of Cixous inspired fiction. Moments captured. But the writing isn’t good enough. I throw it away. I don’t need it.

Then it’s a game of life versus art, and life wins. I spend a decade in classrooms, teaching six-year-olds that all writing starts with an idea while rigorously avoiding my own writing. Another decade at home with my children and Goodnight Moon and Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Sometimes, I open a blank document and pour something shapeless onto the page. Then a baby starts to cry, or I lose my nerve, and I put it away again. I don’t die without it. I shouldn’t bother to do it.

Writing almost slipped through my splayed fingers like four o’clock sand in August. Burning as it went. Then, 2020. In a nutshell: global pandemic, three small kids, one overworked husband. Me, crying on the floor of my closet. I’m 39, wiping down my groceries with Lysol wipes exactly once and then deciding that I’d rather we all die than do that again. I’m forty, lying in bed at night, wondering whether the fever that plagues my two-year-old is COVID-19 or one too many boogers eaten off the tip of his plump tiny thumb. The fear is palpable. It takes my breath away.

Reading is no longer enough. Processed words, neatly configured on the page. They can’t hold my attention. I need to be inside of the words, manipulating them. I need to control the story. So, writing. I go for hour-long runs and hide out in my room afterwards, scrawling handwritten stories across kraft paper notebooks while my husband wrestles with our home-bound children. I stay up late at night, reading aloud excerpts from my unpublished manuscript, sharpening the voice, obsessing over word choice. I take classes. I write. I revise. I find my breath. I need to write as much as I need three cups of coffee every morning. I can’t hold my head up without it. I pass Rilke’s test.

And here I am, forty-one, three kids running circles around me, two novels in progress, a handful of short stories forming into a collection, writing and reading to sustain myself. Most of the time, it’s still the process that I love, losing myself in someone else’s world or in my own, more than the words on the page. But sometimes, Jacob Guajardo, Kiese Laymon, Sally Rooney, a voice reaches through and dazzles me. And every once in a blue moon, now, that voice is my own.