A couple of months ago I learned that an essay I had been sending out for over a decade was going to be published in Good Housekeeping. The payment I would receive for it would be the largest single check I’ve gotten for an essay.
It ran in the print version (p. 71 of the March issue in case you’re interested) and online as well. It tells the story of my mother’s open house obsession — her habit of taking me with her while she dreamed of life in larger, shinier, more beige homes than ours.
I can’t say that I didn’t love touring open houses, too. I love to dream. But for a long time I was angry about it. Angry, because I had this churning need for variety in my surroundings, the kind of wind blowing inside me that made me feel like I would never be able to settle down. I was sure that no box would ever be able to contain me. I was mad at my mom especially, for sending me this tacit message that there was always something better somewhere else.
I started writing my open house essay in 2003. My first reader for it was a man named Dan Fu, who found my book of scribblings when I left it in a San Francisco stairwell. He read the whole thing, all of my interior musings, and sent it back to me (I had smartly including my email address in the book somewhere). He wished me luck, said I had talent. You could say Dan Fu was my first reader.
I went on to sell the essay a few years later, to a far lesser publication than Good Housekeeping and in a far lesser form. It got killed last-minute, that’s how much the editor loved it. In the years since, I have picked it up from time-to-time, reworked it based on new experiences and information, changed a lot because I’ve changed a lot.
But the essay was not ready for the world, not by a long shot. When I first started writing these kinds of short-form essays/memoir I remember a teacher explaining them as a gyre, that you have to circle circle circle the true meaning until you find the true one. Later, taking classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, I remember my work and other writers’ work, right there near the end of the essay. We were all trying to pin our butterflies to the board as best we could, but often there was a comment. You’re close, but the ending needs re-working. Just the ending of course. Just the entire meaning of your suffering.
Here’s the thing we all forget about essays as we’re trying to send them out into the world and move on with our lives. If your ending needs reworking, then you are not close at all. You might be ten years away from being close. You might be waiting for something called grace, to have fought against yourself and your ideas of the world so long until there is an opening to walk through. Your essay isn’t ready yet because you are too young, too angry, your perspective is off by an inch, you haven’t learned anything real yet.
Your essay isn’t ready yet because you are not finished.
My essay will have this one month in the sun and then it will be recycled magazine, but that’s not really why I write these things. I am writing for that moment when I, with my story, have something of lasting meaning to offer the world. I’ll probably never stop the endless re-writing and searching for that feeling the feeling of doneness, but I’m getting a lot more patient, with myself, with the process.
It’s the same story with every new essay. Put it away. Look at it later. Let yourself change and then learn something better from it.