[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Chelsi West part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Chelsi is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a BA from Millsaps College and an MA from UT. Her research in Albania was funded by J. William Fulbright program, the National Science Foundation, and the International Research and Exchanges Board. She is currently writing her dissertation, tentatively entitled, “Racial Entanglements: Charting Emerging and Shifting Categories of Identity and Belonging in Albania.”]
February is the worst month of the year. I keep repeating these lines in my head as I stare at the blank screen. I struggle to think of anything else to say. The beginning of this month is now becoming some sort of a routine.
My Dad taught me to write in the early morning hours. “When I was your age,” he used tell me, “I went to bed early so that I could wake up around 4 a.m. and do my homework when the house was quiet.” Around age 11 or 12 I began to emulate this practice, though I never quite got a handle on the waking up early part so instead, I just developed late-night writing habits. To this day I usually produce some of my best work between midnight and 5 a.m. When I think about it, my Dad helped me to craft much of my approach to writing.
Whenever I wrote papers for school assignments, he corrected them for mistakes, or as I remember more vividly, he dismantled them. He always asked questions aloud too, the kind of questions where the first time I might answer and he would quickly add that the question was rhetorical and did not require an answer but then the second time, if I remained silent, he would look at me crazy with a, “well I’m waiting for an answer” type of face. “What kind of sentence is this?” he often asked. “…And, and, really? Who is teaching you that you can begin a sentence with ‘and’?” Inside of my seventh-grade mind, I recalled that people often began sentences with ‘and’ during everyday conversation. What was different about words on paper? I smile when I think about the so-called rules of writing like this one because when I consider some of my favorite pieces, they are usually ones in which the rules are pushed, bent, broken, or re-written altogether. My Dad though, he just wanted me to succeed, to always do my best. He read my college essays and listened to each talk that I gave. He wanted me to be the best—he wanted me to shine. His energy, his cheer, his hope, they all became my muse.
He died without warning on February 1, 2012 on a crisp Wednesday afternoon, not a cloud in the sky. He was buried exactly one week later, on February 8th, an unwieldy day soaked with invasive rain, the kind of rain that pesters, slowly creeping into every inch of your being. His birthday is February 23rd. I tried to quit grad school after he died. I put on a pair of his old pajamas and planted myself in his chair, announcing to the world that I had no intention of ever leaving, which did not last long because my mother made me return to school later that semester.
There is a certain melancholy that lingers after a loss, a feeling in which you want to remember every single thing so that you will never forget but simultaneously never wanting to recall any memory or thought because it might torment. For me this feeling is intensified in February. The entire month is one, long spastic sequence, a reckless oscillation between laughter and agony; between motivation and stagnation. It is exhausting. During this time, writing can morph from excruciatingly painful to liberating in the span of a minute.
I think back to many sympathy cards that we received, ones that begin with lines such as, “There are no words…” or “When words fail…” and this has me thinking: why have I never seen a greeting card with an expression of words working or doing their job? How exactly are words failing? I think back to moments of dense, sharp silences during grief but there are other periods of relentless chatter, swelling with nonstop sentences and an inability to control my utterances. I am not sure if words are necessarily always failing during grief because at times it feels as if they are successfully betraying me. They fool me, they tease me and then sometimes, slap me in the face. I think that more often than not I am just uncertain of what to do with my words and I panic when they materialize in some unrecognizable form on paper.
“Why don’t you try to write through this?” I have been asked this question many times and I still cannot make much sense of it. I have never been too sure of my position or role as a writer. I do know, however, that it has been impossible to write through whatever this grief is. Whenever I have tried to write through it, the erratic emotions erupt all over again. Just when I think I am “keeping it together,” I start to fall apart. I experience long wordless lulls that give birth to gaps and pauses that I neither recognize nor comprehend. Sometimes my words make no sense at all.
Other times I write with a maniacal fury, composing pieces that make me jump up with an enormous energy for a spontaneous dance break, the kind of celebration that rivals the response to a one-handed touchdown grab. I write while laughing. I write while crying. But to whatever other side I am supposed to be writing through, I do not know where that is.
So this February I think it may be time for me to abandon this idea of writing through and instead try writing with this grief. The grief hangs with me and as long as I am trying to write through it, I think I will be disappointed when it is still there. And sometimes, the fear of failure stops me from writing anything at all, just as the fear of never finding my muse again holds my hands hostage when I try to write. I smile now though because I know that somewhere, my Dad cringed when I began that sentence with ‘and’. I smile too because I know I carry my Dad’s voice, his corrections, his thoughts, his smile each time I write.
My muse is not missing, I think it just transformed slightly. Perhaps those of you reading may also have experienced deep hurt or traumatic loss along your writing journey and if so, I share this with you today to begin a dialogue about the ways that we carry these pains along with us. Writing, like grieving, is very much a process and neither happens in a linear fashion. I think what is important for all of us to remember is that while we try to make sense of it all, we remember just that: we are all learning how to navigate. We write. We shape. We cut. We ache. We envision. We create.