A farmer friend of mine used to love the saying, “Make, make do, or do without.” It was an Appalachian phrase, he said, or maybe it was Ozarkian—a saying that emerged from a hardscrabble landscape, a realm of rural poverty that always brought to my mind quilts and bonnets and hand-made brooms. This particular friend eked out epic winters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula inside a wood-stove heated shed, and he shared his yard with two goats. He had an old, teal-green Ford Ranger, which he drove with the windows down year-round because he’d once spilled milk in the cab of the truck and it had fermented into a strange cheese within the fabric of his seats. He did a lot of making do. And he did without a lot: health insurance, for example, as well as email, running water, shoes appropriate for social gatherings. But he was a quintessential man of the land: This was the good life, he said. He couldn’t ever really see himself going back to a life more “civilized.” Outside his door was a beautiful bean patch; he harvested, dried, and ate pinto beans year round. There were daily eggs and fresh chevre and tomatoes galore during the right seasons, and he’d love to thrust a leaf of kale in anyone’s face and say, “Taste that!” Sometimes, at the end of the day, he’d fall asleep with his boots on. But if you’d put him in a suit and stuffed him in a cubicle, he would have withered and died within a matter of days. He’d carved a necessary, if unglamorous, niche for himself—and now he couldn’t ever make do without it.
I think of him years later from my apartment in humid, grimy Pittsburgh. Partly I’m thinking, why did I ever leave northern Michigan? But even though I miss that sweet kale and the sand hill cranes that flew over the farm, I’m really only thinking of it because for the past few days I’ve been trying to sum up a year of my experience writing for Vela, and that cutesy little phrase keeps drifting in and out of my mind. Make, made do, or do without.
Vela arises partly out of necessity. We started as six writers who had been making do with the writing market. This often meant spending weeks, or months, polishing a piece of writing and then sending it out into the world with a prayer that somebody might read it. Of course, we also knew that the other side is being hard-nosed—networking, looking for connections, seeking our way “in.” Vela arose partly in reaction to these two options; we were sick of making do. We were six nonfiction writers who wrote pieces that often had travel, or sense of place, at the core of our work. For me, this means understanding my craving for places (from the frigid coast of Lake Superior to a dingy apartment in Zaruma, Ecuador), and an attempt to understand my position in place—a sometimes-impossible quest that can only be solved by essaying my way through the confusion.
In his introduction to The Best American Essays of 2000, Alan Lightman writes: “I want to see a mind at work imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then [s]he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.” Vela is a venue where I’m allowed to struggle and grasp to exorcise my own experiences and internal conflicts through personal essays. I don’t write a piece that has the answers—I’m not going to give you the “Ten Best Places to Drink Wine in New England!” Just like traveling often involves a quest for identity within the traveler, my writing often searches to better understand what it means to travel—in the US and in other countries, as a woman, in the twenty-first century. I don’t expect to come away with firm answers. This is travel writing, but it’s something else, too, and since the existing market didn’t quite have room for what we wanted to explore, we made our own venue. We were sick of making do.
Vela’s other mission, to showcase women writers, is sometimes treated as though it’s second-hand. “Written by women,” is our passively voiced motto. Whereas we still struggle to decide how much we should act as feminist activists (and the very indecision is a sign that there’s an issue) our mission has always been about good writing first. But one thing’s obvious: readers everywhere, since the beginning of written words, have been doing a hell of a lot of doing without. Without women authors. Just the other day Molly sent the Vela group a list of depressing statistics, and this one sums it up: of the twenty-four essays in The Best American Essays of 2012, six are women. (In Lightman’s 2000 edition, eight out of twenty-one were women). It feels as though contemporary publishing has gotten as far as including some women, but stopped there. And as a reader, I’m sick of doing without. Vela is an effort to bring more women writers to the (virtual) page. What sticks with me the most after this year of participating is that this is possible. That it is not as empyrean a mission as it might seem or is sometimes made out to be: looking back on this year I think, we did it. And we’re still doing it.
So no, there are no handmade brooms (and definitely no bonnets!) coming from our hardscrabble realm. Just six women struggling and grasping our way through a world where sometimes we feel uninvited. Like a traveler who craves to belong, even if just a little bit, to the foreign country through which she travels, we continue to carve out this niche for ourselves.