“Your words are sloppy,” he said.
It was mid-December and we were walking along the frozen inlet, twilight blurring everything lavender and silver and beyond, the snow-shadowed mountains.
He was a poet from Colorado and I was a single mother from Alaska. We met online and he flew up for a visit after convincing himself he was in love. I knew he wasn’t and besides, I was too exhausted for love. I wanted sex but only if it was quick because I had to write at night, after my son fell asleep, I had to walk the dog and submit my work and finish the budget for next week’s newspaper, and each morning I swam or ran before fixing my son’s breakfast and driving to work.
The poet was older than me, and he had published a slim volume of poems years ago, and he was friends with a famous, alcoholic poet. He treated me with a condescending air, an aloof superiority, as if he were better than me, more talented, more established.
He was also wealthy. I lived in a small, book-cluttered apartment with my son, two cats and hyper dog.
For four days, the poet analyzed and critiqued my work, and then he read his own poems out loud, waiting to be admired, treasured. He wanted me to paint him silver, polish his words until they glowed, but that wasn’t my job.
By the time he left, I was exhausted.
“Maybe someday, but not yet,” he said as I dropped him at the airport.
He didn’t mean us, he meant my writing. He saw me as a beginner, a struggling single-mother who lived in a messy apartment with a too-smart son and a hyper dog.
I was all of those things, but I was more.
All that winter, after work and fixing dinner and walking the dog, after my son went to bed and the house became silent, I wrote with a fury that startled me. I bled words, one after another, and by the time the ground thawed and birch trees gleamed green and good, I had a writing grant, poems in five magazines, plus an essay that would lead to an award that would lead to an agent that would lead to a two-book deal with a New York publisher.
“Your words are sloppy,” that poet had said, his tone dismissive, almost bored, and for months afterwards I had felt ashamed, as if I were lacking. As if I were less.
What he couldn’t see, what took me years to see is that while my life was sloppy and poor and gritty, it was that very sloppiness, that roughness that prompted me to write outside of the boundaries, to defy conventions, to take risk and forge ahead because really, what did I have to lose?
When my first novel released a few years ago, I thought of sending that poet a copy (Look! See what I did!). But I never got around to it and besides, it didn’t seem to matter.
excerpt from Dolls Behaving Badly (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group)
Thursday, Sept. 15
This is my diary, my pathetic little conversation with myself. No doubt I will burn it halfway through. I’ve never been one to finish anything. Mother used to say this was because I was born during a full moon, but like everything she says, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It isn’t even the beginning of the year. Or even the month. It’s not even my birthday. I’m starting, typical of me, impulsively, in the middle of September. I’m starting with the facts.I’m thirty-eight years old. I’ve slept with nineteen and a half men.
I live in Alaska, not the wild parts but smack in the middle of Anchorage, with the Walmart and Home Depot squatting over streets littered with moose poop.
I’m divorced. Last month my ex-husband paid child support in ptarmigan carcasses, those tiny bones snapping like fingers when I tried to eat them.
I have one son, age eight and already in fourth grade. He is gifted, his teachers gush, remarking how unusual it is for such a child to come out of such unique (meaning underprivileged, meaning single parent, meaning they don’t think I’m very smart) circumstances.
Yesterday, I was so worried about money I stayed home from work and tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I sank my head under the water and held my breath, but my face popped up in less than a minute. I tried a second time, but by then my heart wasn’t really in it so I got out, brushed the dog hair off the sofa and plopped down to watch Oprah.
What happened next was a miracle, like Gramma used to say. No angels sang, of course, and there was none of that ornery church music. Instead, a very tall woman (who might have been an angel if heaven had high ceilings) waved her arms. There were sweat stains under her sweater, and this impressed me so much that I leaned forward; I knew something important was about to happen.
Most of what she said was New Age mumbo-jumbo, but when she mentioned the diary, I pulled myself up and rewrapped the towel around my waist. I knew she was speaking to me, almost as if this was her purpose in life, to make sure these words got directed my way.
“Your thoughts are gold,” the giant woman said. “Hold them up to the light and they shine.”
I was crying by then, sobbing into the dog’s neck. It was like a salvation, like those traveling preachers who used to come to town. Mother would never let us go but I snuck out with Julie, who was a Baptist. Those preachers believed, and while we were there in that tent, we did too.
This is what I’m hoping for, that my words will deliver me something. Not the truth, exactly. But solace.