The Dream is this: a balanced life—a happy, loving partner/family; a long, healthy life; abundant economic resources; a lengthy career filled with accomplishments and awards; acknowledged ‘mastery’ of your chosen art; and a harmoniously serene mind and heart to enjoy it all.
In reality, we are more likely fragmented and struggling—always spread too thin, always juggling more priorities than we can handle, always trying to carve out time and energy to nurture our creative selves, always caught up in the work of healing and strengthening ourselves, always running to cover our ragged edges so that no one else knows what we know too well—that we may never attain The Dream.
How do we define ‘tragedy’? How do we define ‘victory’? Virginia Woolf was 59 years old when she took her own life. She chose the time and manner of her passing. For how many years—how many decades—was she able to keep the demons at bay with her creative work?
Can we ask for more than that? To outrun the darkness and wrestle the monsters with all our might long enough to say what we most needed to say the way we needed to say it? To leave a legacy of work and thought and aesthetics that has influenced and will influence so many writers, so many women?
I am 38 years old. My mother died when she was 61. There was no way she could have known when she was my age that she only had 23 years left to live.
Two of my writing heroes, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, only lived to be 58 and 62, respectively. Both taken by illness. Both leaving powerful legacies around the subjects of freedom, power, imagination, expression, and healing.
How much time does any of us have? I could be gone tomorrow. I could live another six decades. Diabetes could take everything I am before I am ready to go.
I have been a witness.
My youngest brother attempted suicide six times in his teens. Gay and dark-skinned, our father humiliated him, devalued him, told him he was not wanted, told him to kill himself and get it right, “and not during the busy harvest season.”
I don’t know what saved him other than his painting and his poetry.
I have seven siblings. Several of them have told me they contemplated suicide. I remember I thought about it clearly and deliberately when I was 11, laying alone in the dark in the nurse’s office. If I could wholly remember my childhood, perhaps I could give you a reason that would explain why death seemed so inviting then.
On my father’s side of the family, there are generations linked by depression and addiction. Unacknowledged. Buried. But tragedies abound.
Writing is the only way I’ve found to repair the wounds of being devalued—for myself and others: as women, as people of color, as lgbt people, as poor, working-class people…
Readers will sometimes ask me why I’ve written so many sad things. The answer is: I know what is mine to write. It’s not that my life is without love, joy, hope, triumph, contentment, and many other blessings—it’s that I’ve known pain, struggle, being incomplete, isolation, grief, and loss and there are so many things I need to say in response. There are so many tangled things to unknot, so many journeys to articulate, so many ways to turn problems and their realities on their heads and possibly shake out a new solution.
My current projects: NACI, a novel set in South Texas about an indigenous, Mexican American hermaphrodite exploring gender and sexual identities in the quest for wholeness; and Song of the Burning Woman, a collection of short stories about the connections between women’s sexualities, identities, and healing.
Every story I’ve written or will write is about outrunning the darkness and wrestling the monsters—the internal and external darknesses, the internal and external monsters. To seek identity and healing is to struggle. That struggle has value and weight and meaning. And beauty.
Returning to the myth of the abbreviated/tortured life of the female artist—what does it have to teach us? What comes to my mind is that the myth is a warning…and an invitation.
Television personalities have told us to ‘follow our bliss and the wealth will come.’ I’ve known people who donated money in the expectation that it would ‘return to them tenfold,’ not because they actually wanted to help others. We do not understand gifts that require sacrifice or work. We do not understand how our lives can be immeasurably enriched by what we give rather than by what we receive. We have learned to define success by external markers only: money and fame.
But there are triumphs, large and small, that only we know about. The way we felt when we finished that poem and wiped away our tears and felt our hearts open and healed. The way we felt when we found that one word, that one right word we needed. The way we felt when we published our first or second or twenty-fifth book—whether or not anyone read it. The way we felt when we took a deep breath and realized we’d survived another storm. The way we felt on that day—that perfect, unruly, happy day we felt free.
I think the myth is a warning—a counterbalance to all those peppy TV voices. Because wealth may never come or because wealth itself can’t contain the whole Dream. Or perhaps a warning to say that there is always a risk, perhaps a tiny one, perhaps a tremendous one, that you may go to close to the edge in your pursuit of truth—and fall—
But it’s also an invitation…Because the myth asks—are you willing to try this anyway? Are you willing to chance losing your mind or your life or your heart? Are you willing to tell the truth whatever it may cost you? Are you willing to forego the comfort of denial, the luxury of dumb appetite, the joy of not-feeling?
How far are you willing to go for your art? How important is it? What would your life be without it?
Dear Virginia: May I follow your example. May I fight as hard as I can for as long as I can. May I live to tell my stories. Thank you for everything your work has meant to me.