My daughter scooted around on her plastic tricycle, tugged my leg, and occasionally cried and whimpered. I hardly glanced at her. Instead, I stood at the sink, up to my elbows in dishwater, and stared at the neighbors’ unlit windows and the somber trees. Norah Jones thrummed from my computer—the kind of music I always turned on when I wanted to feel everything and also nothing—but today it wasn’t working. I would graduate in a few months. I was supposed to be joyous. Yet I was not. Despite being a finalist—despite interviewing on campus and picking up real estate fliers—I had not received a job offer from the university of my dreams. Instead, I was suddenly faced with a year of adjuncting, a tight budget that made the kind of childcare I needed to keep writing a luxury I couldn’t necessarily justify. Food residue clung to the sides of the sink. Snot ran from my daughter’s nose.
“Go out. You need some time to yourself,” my husband said when he got home from work, and so I did. I drove to Panera, where I drank decaf coffee, watched the sky darken, and let failure numb my skin.
Just a few months before, my best friend had passed away from complications surrounding a routine surgery. That spring, her death was still so raw, still so heavy, and the need to talk with her pressed like a vice against my ribcage, revealing an emptiness I could hardly stand thinking about.
We’d met in our master’s program. As new graduate students who had relocated to the Great Plains from the upper Midwest, we talked about how we missed trees and water, and whether or not we could call ourselves writers. In graduate school, the possibilities of writing suddenly became real to us. Writing wasn’t just a hobby, but a vocation, and we were enthralled by the writing community we found, as well as the writing community we created with each other. “There’s a poem in that,” Monica would tell me over coffee. “There’s a poem in that,” I would reply. We mined each other for writing ideas, returning our words and phrases like gifts.
Afterwards, while I went on to a Ph.D. program, got married, and had a child, Monica struggled to find something fulfilling with her masters degree. Her writing suffered and stopped; she grew tense. “I’m becoming bitter,” she’d admitted in an email about medical bills, car repairs, the loss of one apartment and the search for another.
After her death, I ached to talk with her because I knew she’d understand how I felt about my own experience. The frustration and fear. The sense that our careers were plummeting just when they were supposed to start.
We are writers, Monica and I had told ourselves, 23-year-olds in graduate school, our piles of poems a sign of all the work we would continue to produce, the meaning we would make from the world. And wasn’t it the best feeling?—after a workshop or a reading, when the audience nodded, held their hands to their lips, said “Yes,” said “This line, passage, character has stayed with me. I’ve thought of it all week,” and we knew we’d captured some intangible truth, held it like a polished key in our hand, something to be shared?
For so long, I’ve wanted to help students experience that joy. But how can I justify creative writing when we will all, in some way or another, end up at Panera, a journal in our hands, the page blank, wondering what we’ve done with our lives or where we will go? I had just spent the last ten years training to write and teach writing, and although I had landed a series of on-campus visits, I failed to get a job offer. Like so many of my colleagues, I had a Ph.D., but no permanent position, and an all-too-realistic understanding of the kind of rejection I would likely continue to face both on the job market and in publishing.
Two tables over, an elderly man and woman shared a bagel with cream cheese.
“I don’t feel like you care about me anymore,” the woman said. “The kids don’t need me. I’m not the same person I used to be. I don’t know what to do.” She broke her bagel into smaller and smaller bits.
The man slouched, one shoulder slightly higher than the other. “Well, what do you enjoy doing?”
“I don’t know,” the woman replied, her throat tight and swollen, squeezing the last word and then clamping shut.
“We’ll get through this,” he said, his hand over hers.
She leaned into her forehead. I knew she did not believe him.
Nonetheless, her vulnerability in that public place struck me. I imagined her depression—perhaps not all that different from mine: the change in life circumstances, the loss of a goal, the difficulty of adjusting to a future she didn’t anticipate. Yet here she was, fifty years older than me. Tired and worn and alive, with stories and experiences I couldn’t imagine if I tried. Eventually, I would be her age, too. Who was I to think my career was over because I didn’t get my dream job? Who was I to think I wasn’t experiencing the same pain as everyone else, at some point or another? And that I wouldn’t again and again and again?
Outside, the sky turned black. The elderly man and woman got up, leaving two coffee rings on the table. As they shuffled past my hunched form, they stopped. “Don’t work too hard,” the woman said. Her eyes were tired, the lids heavy and red. I tried to unstiffen my jaw and half-smile—I wanted to tell her I wouldn’t—but by the time I opened my mouth they were already moving toward the door, her arm wrapped around his.
I stared at their empty table as a different kind of tiredness overtook me and then faded away.
I write because it connects me to the world. Because I need ancient keys, unearthed and held to the light. I need the space between me and others to close—and because that’s what happens when I read good work, when I coach students, when I set my pen to the page of my notebook. Writing won’t bring Monica back. And it may never lead to the job I had wanted. But for a few minutes, a few hours, reader and writer, writer and world, are joined in a moment of intimacy. The kind of intimacy that cuts through the dish soap and the rejection and the space between two tables at a restaurant and reminds us that this is real. That what we are experiencing now is immediate and worthy of being shared.
The bell on the door jingled. A waft of cold air blew toward my table. As I had done before and would do again, I turned to a new page in my notebook.
One year after the events narrated in this post, Jennifer Case happily accepted a position as assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas, where she continues to teach. She is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018) and the assistant nonfiction editor of Terrain.org. You can find her at www.jenniferlcase.com.
What a lovely piece, Jennifer. I’m so sorry for the loss of your dear friend. By writing you are still connected to Monica just as writing connects each of us to the world. Your piece made me think of the poem by Alden Nowlan, “An Exchange of Gifts”. Writing is, indeed, such a gift. Thanks for sharing yours with us.
Jennifer, I enjoyed that little piece. I expected it to be about handling the successive rejections of being a writer rather than about rejection for a dream job. In the end, it was really about something else entirely: realizing why you write. Your old couple reminded me of a scene when I was 25 sitting at Hot Shoppes, reading a letter from a woman friend who was hitching her way through Africa. As I read her letter intently, an old woman walked over to the table and said, “I know things aren’t going to well back at home and there’s nothing I can do to help, but maybe this ten dollars will be of some use to you. You have to take it. I have to do this every so often.” And I did. I actually needed that money. At the time, I aspired to write, and did, but never thought of publishing. I didn’t even know one could publish the sort of thing I wrote. I sealed everything I wrote during a five year period in a box when I took a “real job” ( meaning, instead of substitute teaching), married, and began raising a family. I still wrote and shared things with friends, but nearly all of that vanished. I began again and then said it’s time to retire and pick up where I left off some 35 years ago. Now, I’m a novice, and have to adjust to a rejection rate that far exceeds anything I ever experienced when I wrote proposals to get funding for projects. Compared to submitting to lit journals, that was a near sure thing. Anyway, I liked your piece a lot. A long time ago, I worked with Betty Hubbard at Central Arkansas. I think she’s still working. If you ever cross paths with her, you’ll be glad you did. Thank you.