Let me tell you how writing used to be.
When I was eighteen, twenty, twenty-two years old, I could sit with a notebook, at a keyboard, in the margins of a textbook, and words would pour out without hesitation. I could do 5000 words in a couple of hours, 10000 in a night, hopped up on nothing but diner coffee and Camel Lights. It felt so natural, that I’d unlocked this superpower. I could turn a tap and it would never run dry. Even when everything fell apart. And, of course, it did.
I moved to Elm because I moved to a mid-sized southern sprawl city to attend a second-tier state university. I did most of that so I could escape women’s college and live with my best friend.
We met junior year of boarding school, settled into sort of best friend and soulmate territory sometime between “Hamlet” and Milton senior year of high school. We both got into the same fancy, weird liberal arts college in upstate New York, where we’d be roommates and fabulous. Neither of us could afford it. So I ended up at Women’s College and she took a gap year. And I told myself my grief about settling for my corner of last resort was as much about not being with her as it was the rest of it.
I went through another round of complicated transfer applications to schools I couldn’t pay for. And when she called and said, “What about second-tier state university? It’s less than an hour from the first-tier state university and didn’t you say they have a good writing program?” (I did). “They having rolling admissions and we’ll absolutely get in.” (We did). “We can live together. We do the things we thought we’d do in New York. We’ll make a heaven out of this still-heavily-segregated mess of box parks, mega-churches, strip clubs and subdivisions!”
I’d never visited Second Tier State University when I applied to school there. I’d been to the city where it was located exactly once, years before, when my ninth grade Latin class stopped to eat at the mall food court on the way to a convention in Chapel Hill. I had no particular sense of the town, save its Civil Rights history until my mother and I drove down to meet my best friend and try to find an apartment.
The city was hot. Campus was a sunbaked, with little green and less ivy. There were too many parking lots and too many divided highways. No one walked on the streets downtown. We toured two apartments, the first a prefab joint, overpriced, specifically engineered for shitty undergrads. It smelled like a Lysol and locker room. The landlord was an oily creep. We fled two miles uptown, to a green tree-lined neighborhood with Park in the title to check out an apartment I circled in the classified because the listing named chandeliers, high ceilings, vintage tiles.
Elm was the second floor southwestern corner of a U-shaped building, with a verdant courtyard that look like something out of a film noir. The apartment was a giant two bedroom with huge windows and shiny wood floors and the afore-mentioned chandeliers. It had grumbling old radiators connected to a cantankerous boiler and a window unit. It had open shelves in the kitchen with hooks for teacups. It was completely impractical, slightly overpriced (at the time) and unquestionably the biggest and most beautiful place I’ve rented to date. It looked like a cross between an apartment in a Film Noir and one of those fancy Upper West Side joints where rich intellectuals lived in Woody Allen movies.
“We’re absolutely taking this,” I told my mother.
“This apartment is everything,” said my best friend.
We signed a lease and handed off a deposit.
Three weeks later we moved in.
We sat on the fire escape smoking cigarettes, dusty, sweaty and tired that first night, squinting at the skyline two blocks up and pretending it was a real city.
“This place may be hell,” she said, but smiled a bit.
I nodded, and thought, but this apartment is heaven.
I’m a bit of a worst case scenarioist, but I’m pretty bad at anticipating disaster.
I should have predicted Elm’s first big heartbreak. I could feel the change in the weather, the pressure drop, the thickening air, the first gusts of hot air from the east. I probably should have taken shelter when Best Friend started speaking to her ex again. He was a furious scowl with green hair and a rap sheet, a habit of showing up uninvited. He hadn’t cottoned to me from the go, probably because he saw me as spoiled, entitled, an unambiguous poser, and owner of no punk rock punk enough for him to enjoy –“Don’t you have anything with less melody”– but maybe also because I was dangerously and completely full of shit. So was she, though. It was one of the reasons I loved her. Probably one of the reasons he loved her too.
We were each other’s best and absolute worst impulses, the sublime and the ridiculous. We lived on the knifepoint. I was from the mountains. She was from the coast. It was no wonder our collisions felt tectonic. We had no buffer zone. Things were terrible until they were wonderful. And since the first Christmas or so, they were mostly terrible, unless we were seeing bands play or traveling to see bands play or stealing vintage dresses out of after-hour donations bags left outside the DONATIONS ACCEPTED sign at the thrift store. It’s not really stealing if someone’s already giving it away, right?
We shared multiple jobs between us but were always, always, broke. . The only class we didn’t failed spring semester, the only one we even went to, was the one about Decadent Poets. We wore sequins under gas station jackets. Fishnet tights and combat boots with Oscar Wilde quotes carved into the soles. Hours were golden. Whole days, misery. I didn’t trust her friends. She mostly hated mine. I wrote a short story loosely based on her and submitted it to the campus literary magazine. I meant it as a tribute, because I was young and dumb. She didn’t speak to me for a week.
We officially failed out of school couple weeks before my mother’s wedding though, failed out is too strong of a term for a school that gave countless underachievers countless opportunities to fuck up, spread out over as many semesters as possible. The only way to remove ourselves from Academic Probation was summer school. We’d both enrolled, but on the first day, my roommate left for the season. I stayed back in our apartment and started writing a novel, because she’d opined that I never would just before she fucked off for Atlanta. I didn’t tell her about it. I didn’t tell her much of anything over the summer. I couldn’t wait for her to come back. I wished she never would. Usually at the same time.
Late in August, I sleepwalked through the discombobulating business of moving my mother and sister into the home they would share with my new stepfather. When I returned to Elm, to make classes, best friend had returned and the apartment was trashed. Like, trashed. Like, furniture missing, things broken, and in my bedroom, walls graffitied, sheets littered with garbage, and a stuffed bunny, an embarrassing relic of childhood had been hung with a panty hose noose from the overhead light, the word YOU written across its plush chest in lipstick red.
I called her at work. She sounded like a tempest, barely contained, cruel, snide, “I had some people over. Maybe things got out of hand.. I think it would be understandable if you wanted to move out. I’ll be staying, though. I’m not going anywhere. This apartment is fabulous.”
The apartment was fabulous.
I wasn’t going to leave. Neither was she.
I bought cleaning supplies. I tried to handle things methodically. Bed. Carpet. Walls. Things. I swept away shards. I scrubbed at stains. I found notes in my journals, wounding things, scrawled in the margins. I felt unspooled. I worried for second, she’d reached through paper, that I somehow wore her brutal annotations on my skin.
The next day we convened a summit. We both went down a list. It was arduous and complicated. We left it at muttered, half-baked apologies and a stalemate. We each refused to leave. It’s hard to let go of a great apartment– Chandeliers! Courtyard! Vintage Tiles!. It’s also hard to let go of your best friend, even when she hates you, even if you deserve it.
I threw the notebooks away. I password protected my computer. I could hear her talking about me through the bedroom door as I tried to go to sleep at night. I listened to music on headphones. I bought earplugs.
Ten days later, Hurricane Fran carved up the middle of North Carolina, I went to sleep in light the exact shade of an old bruise as the tall pines outside beat against the brick walls like they were snare drums. I went to sleep to the sound of transformers exploding. I thought, maybe this is how the world ends. I thought, that would probably be okay.
I did most of my writing facing west at a salvaged library table wedged between the two tall windows on the front side of my bedroom. I used an old Packard Bell desktop, replaced by a Dell in 1998 as a preemptive and hilariously optimistic “graduation present.” I liked West as an orientation in those days. It seemed safer than the Northeast I’d failed to acheive. I dreamed of Northern California. I thought I might be a little in love with Oregon. I suspected I could move there and scrounge out a life without having to prove myself as I would in Manhattan. I wouldn’t have to be as beautiful or talented or smart. I could work in a coffeeshop and write a zine and see shows and live in a dirty house with some number of dirty young people who wouldn’t care that I hadn’t lived up to my potential, that I’d left a second rate state university, that I’d quit everything meaningful save writing and talking to boys that didn’t want to date me about loud and furious songs.
I finished a first draft of a first novel in late 1996, about six weeks after the hurricane. I took the disk home to Asheville and printed it out on my mother’s office computer. It was a pretty dumb book-150,000 words of cliché, pastiche, hugely romanticized squalor, and poorly edited, barely-post-adolescent rage. But I was twenty years old and I’d finished it
I didn’t tell my roommate, my ex-best friend. We were barely speaking to each other by then anyway. I flew to Portland and spent a week enamored of the rain and the scruffy boys that congregated on creaky front porches and waxed poetic about revolution. I gave Xeroxed copies of my book away to Ivy League and the Smile, who received 750 pages with extreme trepidation. Is this another thing about the kind of weird, unhappy people you hang out with in Mid-Sized Southern City? Is this another thing about how you’re trying to pretend you’re tough?
After eight months of Cold War, ex-best friend left in May, to study abroad for the whole of the following year. She would not move back to the apartment. I watched her drive away and it felt like the most Pyrrhic of victories. She had not, ultimately, forced me out. I endured. But I was wholly adrift, terribly broke, and lonely. Stuck in a place I never wanted to be without the sole reason I’d ever gone to begin with.
My writing professor and head of the MFA program asked if I’d mind putting up a poet and her boyfriend for the summer. I didn’t. The Poet had grown up in New Orleans and brought tales of madness and the macabre, a few of which were maybe even true. She dressed like a curvy Stevie Nicks and wrote so earnestly and obsessively of death that it came as no surprise when she said she’d never been to a funeral.
“The real deal is never as beautiful as you want it to be. Oftentimes, it’s really boring and kind of institutional,” I told her. “On the plus, actual funeral services are often unintentionally hilarious.”
She found this disappointing or upsetting or both. I’d been thinking a fair amount about death too. Not because it sounded beautiful, but because it seemed like an option reasonably left on the table when a life had become as bewilderingly purgatorial as mine. I wrote stories about people affected by suicides and snarked in my journal about Hamlet and rolled my eyes when the poet talked about how her ninth grade Goth boyfriend hung himself with the pull the Venetian blinds in the middle of their Spanish final and looked just like St. Sebastian.
“But he was shot by arrows,” I said.
“I meant his face and body language,” said the poet. “Sad, epicine, sensuous even in death.”
“And he literally hung himself during your Spanish exam? Like, what did the teacher do?”
“She looked on with unfeeling eyes, the eyes of a deadened soul.”
“That didn’t actually happen did it?”
She looked hurt. “It’s a metaphor.”
Whatever. The poet was a mess, maybe a bigger mess than I was, but she was in graduate school and I was suffering from atrophied will, according to the last therapist I’d seen. I was barely keeping my head above water, according to second-tier state university. I was writing. I never stopped writing.I wrote plays. I wrote stories. I wrote novels. I wrote essays. I wrote letters to friends. I wrote letters to strangers. I wrote my name in the inside cover of the books I finished and the date to remind myself. I wrote in the bed and when I couldn’t sleep, rose and wrote all night, slept all day, skipped all my classes, but went to watch the theatre department rehearse my play.
As long as I was writing, I was still alive.
When it became obvious I wouldn’t graduate on time, my mother did not make me send back the new computer that was to be my present. She did suggest I come home for the summer.
I hadn’t been home for a full summer since I graduated high school and the idea at once fascinated and repulsed me. I couldn’t imagine going back to my mom’s house, but I’d also found the longer I lived on Elm, the more relieved I was to be away from it. So I emptied my refrigerator. I locked the windows. I went home, and for ten weeks, I worked for my mother.
I barely wrote that summer, but every night I dreamed of Elm. And in my dreams, the courtyard opened onto lawn, and wide bay. By day I lived in verdant green and salty sea air, but by night the bay went overcast red, its expanse cut with blinking wires, and the building shook with a commotion beneath. One night, in one dream, I crept around the back of the building, to a cellar full of angry boys with the heads of stags writhing to blistering, wailing music. And I knew that they were okay with me being there, but I wasn’t sure they would let me leave. Now that you know how this place really works.
I wrote the Poet to tell her I thought there were furious stag dudes in the basement of Elm and their nighttime shenanigans might account for why I was so miserable and also so productive there.
“Actual stag dudes?” she asked. “Like pagan gods?”
“Definitely metaphors,” I said. But I think I’m losing my mind.
By the time I came back from summer away, Poet treated me like I was her best friend. She was jealous and exclusionary. I withdrew, deeper into the worlds I wrote by the window. I adopted a kitten. I named him Oscar Wilde. I added more things to the apartment to fill the empty spaces. I began to think it was normal to spend days and days and days alone.
That’s what it is to be a writer. And writing is the only thing I can do. Thus, this is what my life looks like.
Sometimes I’d sit in bed, sleepless at 5am and feel like I would go until my hands would fall off, until I was knocked hard by some external force. Like a freight train. Like the dancer in “The Red Shoes.”
I didn’t even like what I was writing anymore and I bitterly resented the people that did. “They’re all stupid,” I’d tell my dad. “What kind of asshole would even like this shit?”
“I do,” he said. “It’s maybe the best thing you’ve ever written.”
And then I hated him for saying it because it terrified me that it might be true
There are two versions of how came to leave Elm. The true one is quite depressing. The fictional one is maybe truer. The simple fact is that my parents ceased to subsidize the joke of my existence there, for both practical and emotional reasons. After a fair amount of tears and remonstrations, I received the gentlest ultimatum in history. And instead of pretending I could meet it, I simply started packing one box of books at time. Stripping the walls of my things, emptying the drawers and closets.
Those last two months, I split my life between the writing and an old wicker chair I’d draped in red velvet, where I sat reading a stack of huge, famously difficult novels, as if passing time in the waiting room of my life. I felt impossibly old and tired. I was impossibly depressed, and it would take some number of appointments with simultaneously frustrated and empathetic mental health professionals before I sorted out that it wasn’t just because I’d maybe been a little in love with my ex-best friend and/or metaphorical stag men in the cellar and whatever they used to spike the boiler and haunt the radiators, filling the most fabulous apartment ever with all sorts of dark magic and that being a writer means constantly trying to navigate the chasm between the real world and the one you build in your head with nothing but adjectives and a few sexy verbs.
At least not entirely.
I’m just superstitious enough to think that referring to any day as worst in my life is asking for trouble. I’m also not an idiot. The day I packed up out of Elm, with my mother horrified by how dirty the apartment had become and my stepfather’s conservative brother lecturing me on personal responsibility as he hauled away the refuse of the last four misspent years was not, like, the Battle of the Somme. It wasn’t grand tragedy or even petty tragedy. It was just the day the bill came due for a life I could no longer afford to squander, for both practical and emotional reasons.
There’s an obvious chemical component to that level of despair. You’re maybe nodding if you’ve gotten this far . You’re probably thinking, thank goodness she got help. And you’ll know that I did because, (in full Elaine Stritch), I’m still here, twenty years later. Even though I can’t write like that anymore, for pages, days, hours, like it’s a zombie curse animating an otherwise empty vessel. Some of that comes from age. Some of that comes from the various compromises required for something like sanity, if not always contentment.
I miss being able to write like that, but I don’t miss being so terribly unhappy. I don’t guess I can have both without significant developments in the pharmaceutical sector. Until then, so be it. I’d rather not write six plays in a week. I’d rather the stag boys in the basement keep it down so I can get some sleep.
The apartment is still there too. Sometimes I google the address and look at pictures. It was for sale recently. They replaced the kitchen floor and repainted, but the chandeliers are still there, the high ceilings, the vintage style.
It’s still maybe the nicest place I’ve ever lived.
There is no power on Earth that would ever make me go back.
 An enduring bit of girl’s bathroom graffiti on the first floor of the English department crudely translated the schools’ acronym as U Never Can Graduate.