My book turned one on Saturday.
Now, I don’t have any kids — a fact my students remind me of frequently — but this feels significant. Or, actually, it feels like it should feel significant. Mostly it just feels weird and factual: One year (and two days) ago, my writing found its way into the hands of a lot of people all at once.
I should say something more about that, right? Or maybe I should run some kind of timely promotion like any good seller of stuff. [Okay, that I actually did. Check it out.] Or maybe I should address the many questions people ask me like, what’s next? Are you staying in Baltimore? What are you writing now? Seriously, are you really staying in Baltimore?
No matter what, I should say something about something — anything! — because I’m a writer and haven’t written anything of consequence [not totally true] in now-over a year.
But I can’t! Or couldn’t? Or maybe just haven’t tried in a while…for a lot of reasons, some complex, some less so. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s first talk about Friday.
The night before my not-a-kid turned one, I went to the annual MFA final reading to watch 20something writers present their final work on the same stage I presented on last year.
And y’all, they were good.
I mean, seriously. They were thoughtful, intentional, funny, well spoken, and had an appropriate, if not impressive, amount of confidence in their work, the whole night through. It was inspiring.
I leaned over to my friend — we’ll call her Amanda (because that’s her name) — and asked if we were that good last year. I don’t remember being that good, I said. She made a non-committal sound and said she couldn’t remember, reminding me instead how nervous we’d been.
Where did the last year go? she asked.
I don’t know.
As they continued to take the stage, making us laugh and think and hate them a little, I flipped through memories trying to figure it out. I wanted something definitive. I wanted one piece of writing or moment of understanding to stick out amid the many projects I started but didn’t complete.
And here’s what I came up with: I’m in the in-between.
I wrote some things — in fact I even had one guy write something on my hip for safekeeping — but this year wasn’t a year for completed projects. It was a year for process, a year of gathering, experiencing, reading through notes from my phone.
I am a worrier in general — working on it — but I’ve been exceptionally worried ever since I grabbed that diploma with the wrong hand last May. I worried that I would become just another MFA who never writes again. I worried comparative worry (read: pride) that other people are writing more than I am, that other people are publishing more than I am, that other people are getting married and having babies more than I am (again, the students bring this up a lot).
I’ve been so afraid of what I might become, that I totally forgot who I already was. I was a writer well before I even knew how to write and that’s not going to change in one season [or thirty].
Up until this point, I’ve thought of life in segmented achievements: finish 8th grade to get to high school, finish high school to get to college, finish college to get to grad school, and finish grad school to…do what now exactly? Whatever I want to do [as long as it provides enough money to pay for student loans].
For the first time, there isn’t an educational goal dictating my schedule or placing me in a holding pattern until the semester’s over. Until the project is done. Until summer. Until my degree is complete. Until.
Maybe this is important to say: When I wrote and the floor was always lava, it was not to fulfill a degree requirement — although it did and I’m glad and I’m keeping it — but to give life to a deeper voice I’d begun silencing long ago. By giving that voice life, I’ve finally leaned into my personality as an adult. (I get that maybe it’s weird to figure out who you are at twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six, but I also get that if we’re all being honest, it’s at the very least an annual adventure.)
I moved two weeks ago and I hard a damn hard time doing it. One, I’m just a terrible mover because I have all these craft items that I never use but have hopes of using in the perfect context four years from now on this obscure thing that’s sure to be beautiful with all the right doohickeys and pinterest pointers… and two, I can’t let things go.
People actually tell me this. I’m not making it up. “Let it go,” they say. (Some sing it, because of Frozen and their own inabilities to let things go.)
But I digress. Focus. This apartment.
I changed in this apartment. I faced all my fears in this apartment (read: multiple mice). I fell in and out of love in this apartment. I online dated in this apartment — ugh. I wrote a book and had pneumonia in this apartment. I cried, a lot, for a lot of different reasons on a lot of different occasions in this apartment. I broke at least five wine glasses in this apartment.
I changed. I changed radically. I changed forever. And leaving that place, scared me. Leaving the MFA program scared me. Leaving Louisiana scared me.
But staying or going back to any of those things because of fear, ironically or paradoxically (I don’t know which), scares me more.
But I need not be anxious. For the birds are taken care of, and so am I.
Saturday marked a year since the release of and the floor was always lava and the subsequent completion of my Master of Fine Arts degree. And neither of those milestones really matter, except that of course they do!
Sometimes, milestones are catalysts. Sparks that illuminate our fears, forcing us to see them for what they are: the weakest kind of motivation.
I don’t know what’s next y’all, but listen, and hear me on this, it’s okay. It’s okay to not know what’s next, because — and hear me on this too — nobody really does. We make plans. Our plans are redirected. We are not in control. I am not in control. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year, or the last twenty-six, it’s that that’s okay.
For the first time in my life, there isn’t a goal dictating my schedule, and that feels weird, but also really exciting.
One more thing. Friday night. After dinner and drinks celebrating with our good friend who now has an awesome book, we met a man named George on a corner in Mt. Vernon at 1am. George is a poet who’s raising money to publish his work. He asked if he could recite his work for us for a donation, and I was halfway though no thanks when Amanda’s husband — she has a husband now — said sure.
George’s poetry was good. It may have even been really good — I’m not a poet so it’s hard to know — and he included allusions to Esther, and Ruth, and Mordecai.
George had poetry about Mordecai, y’all.
When he finished, Amanda handed him several dollars since the rest of us were empty handed, and he asked what we liked about his work. We said the rhythm, his confidence, and I brought up Mordecai. He recited one more piece — advice about relationships — and then we all said goodbye.
As I walked the rest of the block to my car, I caught up with George again. He was giving the money Amanda had just given to him to a man asking for food.
He walked me the rest of the way to my car, asking more about the reading we’d just come from and the program and the other poets compared to him. I gave him a copy of and the floor was always lava, and he asked if I wouldn’t mind signing it. I thanked him again for his poetry and the inclusion of my favorite biblical stories and he smiled and said, isn’t this just amazing? Here I am, sharing poetry with strangers on the street and you’re coming from a reading and have a book.
I smiled, got in my car, and cried (like I often do) the whole way home. We weren’t totally truthful with George.
It wasn’t his rhythm, or his reading voice, or even Mordecai (although it’s still cool) that made his poetry so great. It was his passion and his overflowing joy. The same with the graduate students that each took the stage that night. The same with Baltimore.
It’s what I got wrong this year. Fear does nothing for us. It’s the worst kind of motivator.
Passion, joy, intention. That’s what’s inspiring. That’s why I’m here, hanging out in the in-between, in Baltimore.
Originally posted at www.michellejunot.com on May 11.