Why my year of personal essays are the love letters I always wanted. But, I only stumbled upon this revelation somewhere at the end. As a teacher, I know that learning is cumulative, every lesson builds upon the last. As a writer, I’m aware characters must undergo change in order to build tension and create empathy. As Connie, I always thought love letters were the most beautiful thing a person can give another. I just didn’t know, that one day I would write myself fifty-two of them.
I’m a fiction writer, not an essayist, and when I first started this challenge I worried an essay a week would steal time from my manuscript. Truth is, before this year I was a writer who didn’t write much. A Creative Writing English major, member of a writing group for over a decade, with an almost complete manuscript. Who wrote in drips and drabs. Stuck. I took on the challenge, and comforted myself with a truth I knew, but didn’t believe. Writers need to write.
I haven’t sat and crunched the numbers. But, I estimate I’ve written near 280 pages of personal essay for this challenge. The shortest essay I wrote was slightly over seven hundred words, the longest was two thousand and six hundred words, on average I wrote sixteen hundred word essays. I’m a novelist, so length doesn’t scare me. What scared me as a writer, was believing, I was a writer. Because in order to be one, a writer, you must leave everything on the page. And, that is scary as fuck!
But, it was more than just a writing rut I was in. A hollowness resided inside me, one I could not name. And, now a year of essays later, I can name that emptiness. A lonesomeness, really, for myself.
The week of Christmas break last year I read Vanessa Martir’s final essay for the year, completing her personal challenge of writing 52 essays in 2016. I read everyone one of Vanessa’s essays. Often parked in my building’s garage, home from work. The driver seat pressed back, my phone cradled in my hands, Vanessa’s words stormed my mind. Each essay, though personal, rung all the unspoken words inside of me. How could she know what I felt at the moment? How could she know what I thought? Like, ropes tossed over a cliff, I grabbed them and yanked myself up. Words, ideas, lines, and stories, trapped inside of me, whispered: Maybe you can write yourself whole again. Finally, I sent Vanessa a message, said: oooooo this is calling me. To which, she responded: Lean in, sis.
And I did.
I wrote my first essay, the way I slip into a cold pool in the summer, one part of me at a time, afraid to submerge myself, and be seized. My heart raced as I hit the publish button of my WordPress. I shut my eyes, as I shared the link to my blog over social media. Aware my words would be read by: friends, close family members, distance cousins, and writing friends. Words I buried year after year. Essays spilled out of me, some clawed out, others threatened to drown me as I wept. Unaware that my feelings clung to their own feelings, I exhumed myself from my life sentence of silence. One, self-imposed albeit, but aided and abetted.
The American Psychology Association the psychological benefits that writing offers are described in an article titled: Writing to Heal. There is emerging agreement, however, that the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret their experiences, right down to the words they choose. “You need focused thought as well as emotions,” says Lutgendorf. “An individual needs to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”
I wrote about what ached. What kept me up at night. Themes and patterns emerged, the map key of my soul revealed across a screen. I followed the steps, on the path I dug, and walked towards myself.
Throughout this year of essays I have had loyal readers. All who kept me going essay after essay, when I feared judgement or was hung over by vulnerability. Encouraged I forged ahead, wrote what was hard and what was both big and small in my world, hopeful to meet the Connie who would pen that fifty-second essay.
I often read the many draft versions of my essays aloud to my daughter and son, and at the end asked them, what sung? To which, Holden and Rubencito bit their lips or scratched their foreheads, and quoted a part of the essay which was my hardest to write. I persisted. I translated these essays to Mami, often parked outside of her apartment building, after driving her home on the days she picked up Rubencito from school. Mami listened with her hands on her lap, and eyes ahead in the distance. I love the way you sound when you read, do you know that? Mami told me more than once. Later, I realized that was the start of Mami’s love letter to me? And, in between paragraphs I looked up from my perch in the kitchen, and called out to my husband in the living room. Come listen to this, do you like the way this sounds, I asked. One arm folded over his chest, the other up, his head in his hand, my husband listened. And, I was heard.
Friends cheered me on. Dear Valerie, read each and every one, as I sent them to her week after week through text. Her long reviews of my essays always ended with the words: You are a deep writer. Great essay. What I read was, keep going Connie. Dear Michael B, read every essay too, his feedbacks like haikus. A reminder, a poet lived in everyone. My former student and friend, Aisha now twenty-three, read every single one, and like she did many years ago, wrote a thoughtful response to each. I texted Aisha: you were always a thoughtful reader. Aisha texted me: you are a thoughtful writer. I paced myself, and refused to give up.
Then they are the writers I met through this challenge, Tabitha, Nia Ita, and Priscilla. Bonded by this experience, the definition of challenge means: to compete and to prove ability, to complete a feat. Not competitors against each other, but with each other. We read our essays, left comments, liked, and rallied for ourselves.
I reached out to Vanessa Martir yesterday, at the start she said this challenge would be hard, magical, and help writers to get out of their own way. Vanessa was right. I told V, how this challenge did me good. No doubt it helped with craft, stamina I never knew existed in me as a writer, but it helped my heart.
Generally everyone wants love letters, as a teenager and a grown ass adult too. But, I never did. I stopped wanting them early on. Closest I ever got to a love letter were the tags on the Christmas gifts that Mami bought from the both her and Papi. Papi’s slanted cursive on the tiny cards taped to the gifts. I didn’t even know I wanted love letters from Papi, not till I heard another little girl referred to as a princess by her father. I stopped. Rooted to the ground. What I saw was not some fairy tale, but the tenderness between father and daughter. Pierced, I glared at the girl, and rolled my eyes at the father. Stupid. But, what I meant was why not me? Papi, a damn writer, to write me a love letter was something he could have done easily. Compassion has found itself into my heart these days, so perhaps it did not dawn on Papi to write me a love letter. I have forgiven him. Mami, I knew could not write me a love letter, but I would’ve taken a few sweet words. But, I’ve learned Mami worries and criticisms are how she shows me love. I don’t like it, but I’m learning to stop her, when her shards threaten to cut me. I now can identify this pain, as my emotional wound. One that circle and circle around my writing, the wound of not feeling good enough.
But, that’s changed. When you write yourself fifty-two love letters, you can help but feel good about yourself. Dare I say, fall in love with yourself. Like, all real loves you see the beauty, the flaws, well the humanity of yourself. And, you accept all the parts of yourself.
At the end I needed to become the person that I am now. At this moment. In order to write all the stories that reside inside of me. The Connie who will write stories about characters, who they themselves never were never written love letters, but the ones my prose will pen for them.