That time I took 15 years to write an essay

The reason for memoir is the space between who you were and what you are now.

So here’s a story that basically encapsulates what it means to write memoir. My family has this zany ritual of visiting open houses but never actually moving. It emerged a lot from our love of spaces and more than a little from our long-held belief that life would be better if yada yada [insert your favorite greener pasture dreams here].

I have tried writing about this on numerous occasions. The first time I tried I was in my 20s, living in Washington, DC and attending essay writing classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, with the writer Anne Cassidy. She was a great teacher, able to experience an essay in the moment and respond helpfully with just a brief encounter with the work.

But that didn’t make my essay on going to open houses any better. In fact, it had the characteristic anger that comes from a young person just starting to deal with her own stories.

I tried to sell that essay, many times.

Once, I even sold it, to a regional women’s magazine. It got killed just a week before publication, with no kill fee.

In the years that followed, I sat on it some more, tweaked it a bit, as one does, sent it out again to no takers.

The decade and a half passed, the world changed, I changed, and I found myself revisiting this story — a story of women who peer into the lives of other people for fun but always return to their own homes, the ones they chose.

I finally pitched it again two years ago to Good Housekeeping, and it found a home there. It also earned me $1,700, which is still, to date, the most I have ever received for a single piece of short memoir writing.

I don’t believe that I finally sold this story because I found the right editor. I believe that I found an audience for it because I finally got to the point where I could draw the right conclusions, the conclusions of grace and wonder and maybe even joy, from the experience. It finally turned for me when I wasn’t the angry young person still trying to reject her inheritance.

This story was an ending waiting to happen.

Sometimes, in memoir, we are ready to force our endings. We want to have learned all there is to learn, we are poised to drop a great heavy book-end in the last lines. But we’re not ready. We haven’t learned the thing that needs to be learned. We are not in the place we need to be to look back and tell a story with any level of wisdom.

This is partly why the 25-year-old memoirist strikes most of us as odd. Rare is the person who can summon that level of grace and wisdom in youth. I certainly am not one of them.

Are you writing out your anger?

Nothing wrong with that.

Are you writing out your pain?

So much value in the writing.

But don’t rush to publish. You might not be ready to share the story with others if you haven’t done the work, if you haven’t had the space of reflection, if I hadn’t felt less like I was on the ground, in the trenches, not in the hot air balloon, flying overhead, seeing the connections, I couldn’t have got that story there.

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