On their wedding night, my partner’s grandfather chased his newlywed around the bed. Quaint to imagine the scene of this roughneck Indiana boy wanting to make a woman of his bride while she scrambled around the four-poster like a treed cat. I’m not privy to her fears or reasons, but I do know the story ended in lifelong marriage. Sometimes we want what isn’t good for us, and sometimes we don’t want what is, but we may not have to learn everything the hard way.
I am just returned from the Southern Women Writers Conference. Saturday night, Marshall Chapman, writer and singer/songwriter from Spartanburg, South Carolina performed. In between songs she read from They Came to Nashville and Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller.
“Have any of you ever had a habit it took a long time to quit?” Chapman asked her audience with a southern accent so inviting you’d want to release every skeleton you ever hid. A number of us raised our hands. “Sometimes that habit’s a person,” she said before starting into “Goodbye Forever.”
I wrote a goodbye song too, some years back. My chorus was, “I just took myself away from you. / I grabbed my heart, pulled on my boots. If I had a dog, I’d take him too.” Some relationships you swallow like a hook. I am grateful, in hindsight, for the lessons that love and lack taught me, even as I am glad to have cut myself loose. It couldn’t have occurred to me then that I might look back on the experience for instruction and assurance. A habit is not always a person, but it can feel just like one.
The morning before going to Berry College, where the conference was held, I glimpsed something unhealthy in my relationship to writing. More—I recognized a component I have long seen as necessary is not. The component is a common one. I know because when I returned from the conference, I saw a friend in the grocery store, another writer. I hadn’t seen him for long enough that he got to share news of the release of his book. Instead of shining with pride, his face clouded with guilt telling me about it. He was mad at himself for not promoting it more.
Something is born in us, bears itself up by clinging to the belief that dissatisfaction helps. Because I am not him, I could see nothing was accomplished by his regret. He could only promote the book from another place, another mood entirely—one of recognizing the work’s merit and wanting to share it with others, being full to bursting with that need. He was nowhere near there at the moment. The ravage of a romance gone wrong was written on his face. His brow was a beaten one. But the beating wouldn’t help.
The morning of my leaving, the sun was rising in the window. The day ahead promised an audience of writers who would listen to me read my prose. And yet. My mind was whirring with frustration that I hadn’t had time to write all week. I had been busy with other tasks for which I gave myself no credit, no thanks. The old familiar feeling was gathering momentum—the one that has caused me to quit other things and people in the past. I was burning myself up in a fire of self-immolation, but I was nowhere near the flame that produces good writing. Nothing good could come of this habit. It was a form of violence, a kind of hatred—ugly—and made me powerless to improve the condition it put me in. I could see my way around it then. And just like that, I walked out on it. I may have to leave it more than once, but I will—to quote Marshall Chapman—keep leaving it until I’m gone.
Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal, as well as the author of three chapbooks, Farm and There Are No New Ways To Kill A Man. She won the 2012 Pavement Saw Chapbook Contest for The Garden Will Give You A Fat Lip, which is forthcoming.