1. Decade of Change
It’s not only the end of the year, but the end of a decade*. Maybe that’s why it feels like I’m sitting at the edge of a gargantuan cosmic maelstrom of change. It’s the accumulation of Greta Thunberg, Voldemort in Chief, the upheaval of our global political systems, #MeToo, Occupy Wall Street. It’s Lizzo and Meg Myers and Sharon Van Etten and Lucy Dacus. It’s Underland by Robert Macfarlane and The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. It’s turning 45 and outliving my mother. It’s realizing how young she was when she died.
While the world has changed in the 29 years since she passed, looking back at the change of the past decade astonishes me. I feel the weight of it in my bones, my back, my lungs.
Unlike Nicholas Feltron’s fabulous annual reports in which he documented the statistics of his life, I didn’t start out this decade with the foresight to measure any consistent data points. Instead, I began with a single intention, crystallized in 2009: to become the writer that I’ve always said I wanted to be.
3. The Proposal
I didn’t have guidelines, a road map or models. I wasn’t sure where to start. I had maxed out my student loan borrowing capacity (and struggled to afford my monthly payments to Sallie Mae on top of living expenses) so I wasn’t going back to school for an MFA.
In 2009, my writing life was zeroes.
I had no education in the craft of writing. I had not completed or published an essay or short story. I had not submitted work anywhere, nor had I been published. I had no acceptances, no rejections, no connection to other writers.
Naturally, my first step was to propose writing a book of essays about an Italian hill town I had never visited.
4. The Journey Begins
When that call to adventure was accepted, I was shocked. I wasn’t up to the task. Why would they pick me? Complaining about not being a writer was much easier than actually writing. But I was beyond excited about living in Italy, so I went for it.
I enrolled in my first creative writing class at Hugo House with Eli Hastings to prepare for the task. In six weeks, I completed my first essay, Shifting Gears.
I pitched Shifting Gears for years without success. This was back before Submittable, when we sent work by mail and waited six months for a rejection from The Sun before submitting elsewhere. After numerous rejections, I revisited the essay and cringed at the mistakes my former self made. I did this a few times over the years, editing it with new eyes and resubmitting it.
In 2015, it finally found a home at Bird’s Thumb.
5. The Data
Since then, I’ve taken classes at Hugo House nearly every quarter. I’ve used vacations to study with Anthony Doerr at Tin House; Bhanu Kapil at A Room of Her Own; Sayantani Dasgupta at the Port Townsend Writers Conference; Maud Casey at Breadloaf Sicily; and Sharma Shields at Fishtrap.
In 2009, I wrote 5,000 words and completed two essays.
For the last four years, I’ve written a minimum of 65,000 words each year. In 2018 I wrote the most words ever in a year: 128,000. In 2019, I wrote 80,000 words and finished 16 essays and short stories, in addition to capping off a novel (which comprised most of those 128,000 words in 2018.)
In a decade, I’ve written 510,000 words and finished 90 works, mostly essays and stories, alongside the occasional poem.
I’ve written two novels, two essay collections and one collection of poems. I’ve staged two installations, one in Seattle Public Library, the other at Jack Straw New Media Gallery. I’ve completed the Artist Trust EDGE Development Program and the Jack Straw Writers Program. From 2009 to 2019, I’ve published 37 works including essays, short stories, articles and interviews.
I would not have been able to achieve any of this without teachers. The gift of a week with my workshop leaders—Tony, Bhanu, Sayantani, Maud and Sharma—raised my sensibilities each time.
I am so grateful for critical feedback from Sigrid Nunez, Steve Almond, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Vanessa Veselka, Alyssa Nutting, Sonya Lea, Frances McCue, Nichole DeMent, Theo Nestor, Kristen Millares Young, Sierra Nelson, Jane Wong, Michael Schilling, and Wendy Call, who have helped to shape the way I think and write.
Grants, residencies and fellowships from the Civita Institute, 4Culture, Jack Straw, Invoking the Pause, Mineral School and Vermont Studio Center have supported the development and presentation of my work.
Feedback and camaraderie from my EDGE writing group—Susan Landgraf, Lynn Knight, Ann Batchelor Hursey, Judith Gille, and Catalina Cantú—has been essential to my maturation as a writer. We meet once a month to read each other’s work, celebrate accomplishments, and hold each other accountable for our dreams and goals.
My spirit has been fed deeply with adventures, and writing with my sister-from-another-mother, Jen, who I met at Tin House in 2014.
To Tammie, for always showing up for me, emotionally and physically, no matter how odd the request, the performance or the venue. To Bonnie, for lovingly nudging me in the right direction with confidence that I will, somehow, meet the task.
Unwavering support, warm dinners, and a kind ear from my husband, Michael, make writing possible.
Whatever your list of data looks like, take a moment to thank everyone who helped you. You did not achieve that list alone.
7. Rejection and Failure
Plenty of my desired achievements remain unmet. I’m cool with that. (See: my essay on rejection at Submittable.)
My white whales include those ever-elusive acceptances from Hedgebrook, the Hugo House Fellowship, and Artist Trust’s Gar La Salle Fellowship. I went for an NEA Creative Writing Grant this year because, why not? Submittable counts my lifetime of rejections at 364, but I have received double that in the 720 total submission that I’m counting. (I didn’t keep track of submissions until 2013.)
In 2013, I made 53 submissions (including grants, fellowships, residencies and finished work) and received 1 acceptance.
In 2019, I made 118 submissions and the jury is still out on many.
Most years, I’ve made over 100 submissions. In any given year, the math says I receive somewhere between 3.5% and 10% of what I submit for. In low moments, I remind myself: You can’t win if you don’t play. Don’t take yourself out of the running. That’s someone else’s job.
8. Not Knowing
The data above is one thing, but the accounting resonates as more. When I look back ten years, I see that I have met my intention—not by “becoming a writer” but developing a practice. I have established a framework within which creative work happens. Within my practice, writing can be nurtured, developed, refined, completed and shared.
This is work that happens on an individual skill level, rolling over and crawling before walking before running the bases. I’ve apprenticed myself and put in the initial 10,000 hours (give or take) within which one develops a basic understanding of craft and the rigor of practice. Now, I finally know where to start.
Taking a nod from Mary Ruefle, “The difference between myself and a student is that I am better at not knowing what I am doing.” Word.
9. Core Work
I overlooked a second intention that I set in January 2009: I wanted to practice yoga. I took my first class from Denise Benitez at Seattle Yoga Arts back at the original little gem of a sweatbox on 15th Ave, and that, too, changed my life.
I had been studying with Denise for two years when a new student dropped into class one Sunday. This student was lithe and flexible beyond belief, reversing into a backbend from Tadasana. Denise caught me coveting her abilities (and silently judging myself for being nowhere near.) My expression belied my awe, and she called me out. “Gabbi’s mouth just dropped.” My cheeks reddened. Then she continued, “Because every problem in life is solved—life is perfect—if you can just do a backbend, right?”
The class laughed with relief as they, too, struggled to do a backbend. My tears pitter-patted on the mat. At the time, I felt humiliated—why would she be so cruel? Later, I realized she did me a favor. I had always compared, if silently, my achievements to those of others, rather than focusing on my practice–yoga, writing or otherwise. If I kept desiring someone else’s skills and abilities, I would never inhabit or strengthen my own.
I am deeply grateful to Denise for her many teachings in those beginning yoga years, and for the spiritual guidance of Nihāl Sevillano, Claudette Evans, Amy Reed, and Ellen Boyle, whose delicious spiritual wisdom guides me today.
I didn’t realize when I began practicing that yoga would influence my writing or help me to meet the daily challenges of life. I just wanted to touch my toes.
10. The Next Decade
As much as I love goals and lists (I’ve already made mine for 2020), I keep returning to intention. Maps and data and measuring are fine, but where I’m headed, there are no roads. It’s scary and exhilarating.
This past summer at Fishtrap, we celebrated the life and writing of Ursula K. LeGuin. Though she died in January 2018, her spirit was ever-present during the week.
From Ursula, I invoke my intention for the next decade: “There comes a point where you have to choose whether to be like everyone else for the rest of your life or make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
You can’t say you weren’t warned.
*or what we measure as a decade, since there was no year zero, blah-blah