I’d quit my job, a job I’d once loved. I’d continued to participate within autistic community, through existing friendships with autistic adults, helping provide supports where I was asked. I’d started an Autism Book Club with another friend, a group of dedicated readers – autistic, or parents of autistic people, or professionals who wanted to read more about autism – all of us curious to learn more about autistic representation on the page. I was spending long hours on the phone with parents and family members of autistic children. I’d continued to serve on the Human Rights Committee at the Autism Society of NC.
I was still serving as the music director of the Episcopalian parish where I live, directing the choir, playing the piano, and selecting the hymns across the seasons of the liturgical year. I’d even been through a discernment process regarding priesthood; my dear discernment community felt, unanimously, that my calling was not clear. Apparently, clear calling is required for ministry, and I did not have one. But I still loved the work.
I’d started leading classes in Autism and Narrative, looking to the texts written by autistic authors like Dawn Prince-Hughes, Michael Scott Monje, and others to learn more about what the autistic experience is like. Having long lost faith in the medical model of disability, I wanted more intimate understanding of the human experience that’s been termed autistic; not as a deficient model of the human experience, but a life full of experiences that have long gone unnamed, unidentified, or misunderstood.
And I was writing. Every day. I’d abandoned one novel, found myself working on a new one. I wrote short stories, poetry. I wrote blog entries, essays intended to raise awareness about my fledgling autism consultation business, but the more I wrote, the less I cared about developing my business. The more I wanted to write.
I wasn’t new to writing, not really. I’d been writing and publishing poetry since I was in my 20s, had attended workshops at Fine Arts Work Center in P-town, at Oregon’s McKenzie River at the beloved women’s workshop, Flight of the Mind. I’d written book reviews for years, and I’d been awarded grants for writing, fellowships for residencies at the most civilized place I know, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. As I wrote in the letters that I would eventually submit to MFA programs, “I’ve been writing for a long time; I’ve finally decided it’s time to learn how to do it.”
What I found when I surveyed the cluttered landscape of late capitalism is that I didn’t want to participate in any more violence. Not against people, not against environment, not against myself. I wanted to sustain the lives of the marginalized, bear witness to the fears of the privileged. I wanted to abstain from easy judgment, to walk without clear direction, open to the elements. Or, open-ish. Admittedly, violence is woven into the very fabric of our existence: we do not live, do not know how to live, perhaps cannot live, gentle, sustainable lives. But there were ways to minimize the violence, and I was in the privileged position of being able to try them.
To take writing seriously as a craft, a vocation, a profession is a public act; this going public was the first blow. Being forced to admit that I was going to try to do this, that I was going to Be A Writer (“The first rule of writing is never think of yourself as a writer. The second rule is to write.”) was uncomfortably public, demanding explanations that I was not prepared to give.
The second blow was that, upon finding myself at Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program, I wasn’t given directions to follow. Instead, I was given footprints.
Here in North Carolina, snow is a special occasion. Even here in the mountains, a snowfall of more than a few inches is an event. This past week found us digging out under about a foot of fresh fallen snow. The dogs and I soon left the house behind as we walked up the mountain, the snow rising as we climbed. Our two dogs, Theo and Puck, were exhilarated in the snow, dipping and diving, their noses snow-covered and tails wagging. They didn’t keep to the center of the road, but seemed to instinctively seek out the deepest drifts, retrieving the stiff grey bodies of voles who hadn’t made it through the cold. The dogs held them in their teeth as gleefully as popsicles.
I, on the other hand, found my breath coming quickly long before we’d made our way to the ridgeline. My legs ached from the push and pull of muscles that propelled me through the deep snow. I felt my knees twist, my ankles fixed in strange new directions to keep me from falling. The had been no one to plow the roads, no shovels to touch these trails. The only evidence of our presence was found in looking backward.
We’d just about reached the top of the mountain when we found that someone else had been there ahead of us. Entering from another direction, someone’s footsteps broke through the snowdrifts and provided a trail for my own feet to follow.
The physical difference in walking a path that someone else has laid, and cutting through a path of one’s own is astonishing. Suddenly, I could see my own feet. I knew when I would need to brace against a jutting rock, or guard against a sudden dip in the road. I was no longer having to push with my legs, only allow them to guide me, to follow the feet of another walker.
The MFA allows me to follow the feet of other walkers, other writers. When there is a trail…why not take it?
I remember now the looks of dismay found on the faces of people who loved me when I exclaimed with enthusiasm the thing that impressed me most about the MFA program I’d entered: They don’t promise you anything!
There is nothing to promise in the work of writing. There is only walking, sometimes along a path well-trod by others (though even here, one pauses with frequent gasps, as if shocked to find the truth of what’s been already so well-documented); sometimes cutting a new way through unworked ground, uncertain of where, or if, feet will find their purchase. This walking goes more slowly, and you never know when you might come across the tracks of someone who’s been there before.
Writing offers opportunity for kindness, for deep compassion; it’s a way of slowing down attention, to witness one’s own life in all its complexities and unspeakable wildness. It’s a way of exploring the vagaries of another person’s life, of using imagination as a tool of empathy rather than entertainment. If prayer is said to be close attention with a heart of kindness, then, in that regard, the act of writing is as close to prayer as anything I’ve ever done, or am likely to do. Writing has become the way I spend my days, and the way I want to spend my life. Why not follow the footsteps of others who’ve done the same?
Why not follow the footsteps of others who’ve done the same?