Photo: Alice Driver
Photo: Alice Driver

My Own Trap

Two years ago, when I was living in Mexico City in a rented room that faced a noisy gas station and made me an insomniac for the first time in my life, I got the news that my book, More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico, would be published. The book was the result of several years of research and interviews about the increase in cases of disappearance and violence against women in Juárez, Mexico. For a long time, I had imagined the kind of joy I would feel – the authenticity that I could finally lay claim to – when I published a book.

However, that day, I wrote in my journal, “There is no such thing as arrival.” I did feel elated, but I didn’t feel any more or less legitimate as a writer than I ever had. After years of burning through journals asking existential questions about my purpose in life and wondering if I would ever feel like a writer, I finally gave up and realized that all I would ever have was the journey and the process.

 

I have boxes of journals that stretch back to when I was six years old and writing about my dog, Buddy; swimming in the creek; my fat toes: and my best friend Lucy, whom I thought my mom loved more than me. Ever since I started studying English literature in my early twenties, I’ve wanted everyone around me to recognize me as a writer, something I did not realize I could do for myself. I reached out to other writers, asking them for tips and secrets, thinking that if they gave me the right tools I would be on my way. But my constant questioning and endless insecurity was tiring, both for myself, and, as I would realize later, for others. I poured my insecurities into the world and asked for confirmation in return, a transaction that offered nothing meaningful to anyone involved.

Part of my crisis stemmed from the fact that my parents, a potter and a weaver, made the sacrifices necessary to pursue their art. They moved to rural Arkansas in the ’70s, lived in a tent, built a house, made pots and tapestries, created the vessels that contained their lives. They bought land with my dad’s three brothers and their wives, lovers, and girlfriends. They had babies at home.

My Dad is a a mad potter, a force that moves clay, moves chainsaws, moves lumber, moves stone. He and his twin brother, my uncle Larry, are equally obsessed with rocks: moving them, stacking them, finding big flat slabs in the creek and working together to carry them to the bank of the river. They make monoliths and rock walls, and from the intensity of their concentration, the way they move, you know that the weight of stone makes them feel most alive.

 

My mom is the funny, irreverent presence that makes life with such a force bearable. She weaves tapestries; plants asparagus, lettuce, arugula, blackberries; makes gazpacho, tamales, homemade bread. Sitting at her loom last summer, she told me the story of her love of weaving: “I learned to weave in a craft school in the mountains of Tennessee. And so when I got out of college, I didn’t know what I was doing. My parents knew I was interested in weaving so they said, ‘Well, we’ll give you this present. We’ll send you to learn how to weave.’ I think I do it for mental health as much as anything else. Weaving gives me a sense of usefulness. Even though I don’t sell a lot of my work.”

Growing up, I remember living off the land, remember times when the lack of money was acute enough to permeate even my childhood consciousness. I recognized that my family didn’t buy things the way other people did. I remember that we didn’t celebrate Christmas the way other people did, with mountains of gifts. When I was younger, I felt sad about it, but as I grew older, I came to appreciate what my parents called a “non-material Christmas.” I wore hand-me-downs from my cousins, ate from the garden, and ran in the woods.

The lack of material things only came into focus when I was with other kids in town, kids who had clothes and toys and who would make fun of me and my worn things. But my daily life was full of textures, my feet on my mom’s turquoise and purple rugs, my hands drinking out of my dad’s rough ceramic cups, which my brother and I would fight over depending on which cup was our favorite at that moment. Everything in my life, from the floors beneath my feet to the paintings on the walls and the stained glass windows, had been handmade by a member of my family.

 

My parents lived with the numbers, the exact dollar amount in the bank each month, which was sometimes not enough to cover gas and groceries. As my dad explained, he lived with the financial uncertainty because, “I didn’t want to buy into the system. It’s hard to make a living. Just how many thousands of pots do you have to sell in a year? You know, there have been at least three or four times that we were ready to give it up.”

When I was growing up, nobody in my family had health insurance. My parents built their house over a period of decades, paying for building supplies little by little when they had extra money. Last summer, my mom told me, “Every penny we had went into building materials. I mean, our life was about ‘Oh, a new window, oh, another new window, oh a doorknob. Progress!’”

My brother and I lived in the garden, grazed on sweet peas, tomatoes, prickly okra, measured ourselves next to the asparagus stalks that had gone to seed. Food was and is such a central part of our lives, of the way we come together and the way we love.

My parents both had studios and worked from home, so they were an ever-present part of my childhood. Sometimes I would sit beside my mom weaving or sewing or making dolls, and other times I would go to my dad’s pottery studio and nibble on clay or make tiny sets of plates and cups for my teddy bears. My dad’s pottery studio was filled with tools, and, for as long as I can remember, he has had the same message scribbled on his chalkboard: “How easily this human life is exhausted just performing meaningless tasks.”

In college, when I first dared admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer, I often asked, “Am I sacrificing enough?” and wondered, “If I give up just a bit more, will I reach that place where I can finally survive from my writing?” Growing up, reading was my world, the way I escaped from the beautiful but isolated Ozark Mountains. By the time I got to college, the world was already beginning to be consumed by the virtual realm of the Internet, but in my mind the ability to create an entire universe in a book was powerful, and I wanted a piece of that. However, I didn’t know how to go about combining writing and making money, so I did what most confused writers do: I went to graduate school.

 

It took me a good six or seven years – the time I spent to get my Ph.D. and complete a postdoctoral fellowship in Mexico – to admit that I didn’t want to be an academic who wrote; I wanted to be a writer. So I took off for New York City to live with my brother, Ian, and freelance. Ian was a graduate student at Columbia University, and spent his days in a lab in Washington Heights conducting stem cell research. He was a genius and a slob, and at the apartment he was always on multiple electronic devices, one hand on a huge homemade sandwich, surrounded by piles of old New Yorkers, dust bunnies, remnants of food, and piles of change. As much as I didn’t want to clean his apartment, freelancing compelled me to clean it.

Ian saw me through a lot those few months: I cried, I got sick, and I was pretty needy since he was the person I saw the most. Because I had no health insurance during that time and couldn’t afford to see a doctor, even minor health issues like a urinary tract infection became quite serious. I also realized that, as a social person, I was not made for working from home. I checked emails obsessively and had way too much time to grow irate at editors. I’m sure I drove my brother a little bit crazy, and even my obsessive cleaning made him mad, because he could no longer find his own things.

Mainly, while scrambling to make enough money, I lost focus on the kind of writing that moved me. It seemed that either I had the time to write what I wanted or I had the money to pay rent, but never both at the same time. And any time I actually saw friends, I fretted about money or editors. I had no room for anyone else in my life. In short, I became obsessed with myself: the worst thing a writer can do.

 

After living like this for several months, I decided to take a job as a writer and translator for a large multilateral organization in Washington, D.C. In my freelance life, I had been too poor to be able to pick and choose my creative projects, so once I started making money in a stable job, I decided that I would fund my own projects. The first one I undertook was a short video essay about my parents. I wrote the script and collaborated with Mexican filmmaker Rodrigo Jardón on the video. I took a week of vacation and traveled to Arkansas to film. During that week, I watched my parents work and listened to their ideas about how to maintain a creative life.

 

Over dinner one night on the porch, our faces bathed in candlelight, my parents shared stories of raising my brother and me and the lessons they learned about making art over a lifetime. My mom said, “I think part of it is just appreciating yourself and being kind to yourself and not having unreal vision because our society puts so many unreal ideas of what success is, and not to buy into those ideas.”

My dad was more direct: “If you have something that you have to say, you’re going to do it. If you want to get distracted by other things, then you will. You have to be passionate enough and crazy enough about what you want to do in an existential kind of way to where you will do without other things. I mean, if other material objects or a certain lifestyle or a certain materialistic state, if those are more important to you than the creative work, then you’re not going to become an artist.”

 

It was easy for me to get distracted from the creative work, to believe that what I did had no meaning without outside validation. At the time I made the film, I was reading everything I could get my hands on by Cheryl Strayed, whom my mom had introduced me to when she gave me a copy of Wild. Strayed made what for me is the definitive statement on the topic of creative work in a reply to Elissa Bassist, a young writer fighting demons: “Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”

For a long time, I thought people would ask me to write, that they would read something I had written, recognize my talent, and get in touch with me. Yet most people barely have time to hold their own lives together. To ask others to constantly reaffirm my life path was selfish.

 

Some time after I had begun my efforts to write without a concern for money, I went to an event where poet Nikky Finney would be reading. I had taken a class with her in college on the Harlem Renaissance, and although I had not seen her since then, I was moved to tears by her 2011 acceptance speech for the National Book Award in poetry. In that speech, she remembered how, “Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, great and best teacher, you asked me on a Friday, 4 o’clock, 1977, I was 19 and sitting on a Talladega College wall dreaming about the only life I ever wanted, that of a poet. ‘Miss Finney,’ you said, ‘do you really have time to sit there, have you finished reading every book in the library?’”

Although Nikky and I had not seen each other in years, at that event I stood up in the audience of hundreds and told her that her poetry and presence had convinced me to be a writer, even though I never felt like one. She replied, “I could see this moment 13 years ago. Get out of your way and live your writer life. Don’t be stopped or slowed down by the word ‘Writer.’ A writer is one who writes.”

 

These days, I get lost in projects I am passionate about, and go forth with my creative ideas even if I do not feel ready. Given the years I lived in Mexico, I have been following the disappearance and probable murder of 43 students from a small town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, in what appears to be a collaboration between the police, the army, and drug cartels. In February 2015, I interviewed Francisco Goldman, who has been writing for The New Yorker about the largest protests in Mexico’s history and citizens’ demands for justice for the disappeared 43. At the end of our interview, he talked about being a writer and said, “Identify what it is you want to do and without necessarily understanding it, completely commit. It’s risky. It’s like what Bolaño said in his famous Venezuela speech, ‘What is good writing? It’s not good writing. It’s knowing that writing is looking into an abyss.’ Sometimes the abyss will destroy you.” I laughed; in that moment, I recognized myself as the abyss. I often wonder why it took me so many years to wear myself out, to stop thinking and analyzing and questioning myself.

I know and love what my parents did and the lives they made. I will never forget my dad standing barefoot and shirtless in the June heat last summer as he explained, “Most of my friends got their college degrees, got jobs, you know, did all these things that everybody’s supposed to do, got married, bought houses. To me, that seemed like a trap. This is a trap too, but it’s my own trap. The most important moment in my life is my father dying when I was 14. Just realizing how short one’s life can be, and if you make choices and do things to make other people happy or to please other people rather than doing what you need to do for yourself [that] seems really stupid.”

But in recent years I have realized that their lives are not mine, and their creative path, though one example, is not the only one. In the past, I wanted to be a writer for other people, and I judged my sacrifices against those made by my parents. For myself, I now know that all I need and all I will ever have is the work, because everything else – even the publication of a book – is ephemeral.

 

Last summer, I sat with my mom in her weaving studio, and looked down at her cracked feet as she wove. The cracks were filled with dirt from her garden. She was talking to me about why she and my dad moved to Arkansas in the first place. “We thought everything was falling apart in terms of society. It wasn’t sustainable. We actually thought we were going to change the way the world worked – that the choices we made would be the choices everybody would make.” She laughed, throwing her head back in a gesture I recognize because it is a mirror of my own laugh. And then she kept on weaving.

 

Watch Alice Driver’s short documentary, My Homeland, which was selected by New Filmmakers to be part of their Spring 2015 Screening Series in New York City.

MY HOMELAND from Alice Driver on Vimeo.

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10 Comments

  • Thank you, I am so moved by your words and your parents’ teachings on the creative process, what a rich life you all live. I substitute “paint” for “write” and take inspiration from you here. Blessings. Yolandah

  • Wonderful essay, Alice. I’m still ruminating on “their lives are not mine.”
    Thank you for sharing.

  • Sally says:

    “For a long time, I thought people would ask me to write, that they would read something I had written, recognize my talent, and get in touch with me. Yet most people barely have time to hold their own lives together.” Thank you for reminding me of this. Really, a beautiful piece.

  • Inês says:

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece of writing.

  • starrdusk says:

    I will read this over and over. I will quote you learn from you and wish you all that you desire. Thank you for this piece.
    One of my favorite lines right here
    “Get out of your way and live your writer life. Don’t be stopped or slowed down by the word ‘Writer.’ A writer is one who writes.”

  • Rodrigo says:

    Acceptance :)

  • Lara Speyer says:

    Loved your story and film! Thank you for diving in to the river of your life and your parents life and sharing it. Beautifully done!

  • Susan Bragg says:

    exquisite Alice. I treasure the work of both your parents & now yours; will share with a number of my friends

  • Schnauzevoll says:

    First of all, congrats on being freshly pressed :-) AND awesome words, too, really thoughtful post and probably you made a lot of people think about their lifes now, at least if they went through the entire post XD

  • robin Greeson says:

    Alice, What a beautiful documentary and story of your lives. .. Your words and pictures are true, artistic and real…just as your parents raised you and Ian. Tears came to my eyes watching this, I’ve known Steve and Larry since we were all 8 years old…. …55years….You re an artist I know your parents are so proud of you ….keep writing..!!!! wishing you all of the best, Robin

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