Our house began as a one room building, perhaps a tenant farmer dwelling or a storage shed on the back forty. By the time we purchased the property, the house rambled like a good old farmhouse should. There were many structural problems. It seemed that the entire place was mere moments from falling down. Every wall, every sill, every pipe, every wire—trouble. Only the floors and foundation seemed sturdy. The foundation is made of massive fieldstones and slabs of granite hauled into place by teams of horses.

We bought the house in March of 2005, during my last semester at Bennington College, where I was working on my MFA. Though warned about the quantity of work, we were completely overwhelmed by the task. Really, nothing could have prepared us. Nor, do I suppose, could anything have deterred us. One day, as I was down on my knees pulling plaster and lathe from studs, I discovered a stretch of horrible termite damage. This was nothing new. The house had been chewed on by all sorts of fantastic bugs and rodents. But on this day, the sight of more distress caused me to panic. How could we renovate this entire house when every inch needed attention? I felt massively under-qualified for the task: a pretender, a phony, a fraud. And yet we’d already gone too far to turn back. What else was there to do but move forward? I could only do the work in front of me in the best way I could. Chop wood, carry water—as the saying goes. That panicky moment was a turning point. Whenever I felt hopeless about the house’s condition, I’d go down into the basement to look at the old stones, run my hands over their sheer immovable bulk.

A similar chronology occurred in my writing life—which one might say began as a one room structure: Yes! I want to be a writer! As I got older, read and studied more, I found that the original “room” or desire had grown complicated and unwieldy. To be a writer, one had to write. But to call oneself a writer, one didn’t have to do anything. I could scribble a few words in a notebook, or read lofty novels that dealt with the pain of existence, but I certainly didn’t have prove that I was a writer. Then, as I was approaching thirty, I had a panicky “oh, no…this is too much work” moment in which I realized that my desire to write had become a vague longing. So, I made a decision to try an earnest practice of the craft.

I spent my thirties learning about stories, both reading and writing. My writing was published in good reviews and journals. I wrote two novels (one, supremely bad, is now hidden away, and another, pretty decent, is in limbo). I earned two graduate degrees. We started a family and bought our houses. As a writer, I still felt massively under-qualified for the task: a pretender, a phony, a fraud. Sure, a few stories here and there, but what does that mean? Where’s the fame? Where’s the novel contract? Where’s my table at the Pulitzer Party with Norman Mailer bugging the waiter for some decent scotch? Where’s my Oprah interview?

These are the sorts of questions that kill writers. I let them in the door. I swam around with them, lamented that I hadn’t become the writer I imagined. Perhaps most devastatingly, I stopped writing. I’d been working on a third novel, a risky tale of human renaissance that took place over nearly eight thousand years, but I’d stalled. I worried more about not writing than actually writing. But I’d already come too far. What else was there to do but move forward? In July of 2008 I was notified that I’d been awarded the Individual Artist’s Fellowship. The fellowship was more than mere “recognition.” It was cause to reassess my writing life, to look over what I’d been doing, to see if there was something salvageable—to see if there was a foundation.

This past December, I made a big change. To break the cycle of “not writing,” I removed the computer from the desk and took out a notebook and pen and I got back to work, writing the last section of my novel longhand. I’ve never written fiction longhand. Even at a young age, I typed. Now, as I renovate the last section of the book, and work toward a complete picture, I feel the words in my fingers, pressing against my palms. Of course, the writing is rough and the going slow, but I am determined to work carefully and diligently, as I’ve tried to do in my home, from the foundation up, until the structure is as sound as the old fieldstones supporting the weight of it all.


3 thoughts on “Foundation

  1. I often struggle with the label of “writer.” I consider myself one, certainly, though I DON’T aspire to write a novel, or to even be published, really. Does that somehow diminish my status (self-assigned though it is) as a writer?The truth of the matter is that I’m compelled to write. I need to write. If I don’t write, I feel like I’ll explode (or, perhaps no less dramatically, lose my sometimes tenuous grip on my perception of my world). THAT’S the criteria by which I judge myself a writer. I need to pour out words like I need to exhale; were I not to write, I would cease to be who I really am.

  2. “To be a writer, one had to write. But to call oneself a writer, one didn’t have to do anything.”I suspect this is the case for many creative people. Many moons ago, I dated a “painter”. I met him at the restaurant where I worked when he was hired as a cook. There were paintings on the walls of his apartment, but I never saw him paint anything new. He was, he said, waiting for inspiration. Mostly we went to galleries together, sat at cafes with other “artists”,(he) smoked cigarettes, drank wine and talked about art. (Oh, to be 23 again…)I am going to follow your example. I am going to create something everyday. I’m going to learn about my crafts, and and struggle through new techniques. Start at the bottom and build a strong foundation and not get overwhelmed at all I don’t yet know.And then I’m going to look for a copy of your novel 🙂

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