I have been home from work since eight-thirty, for an hour and half, and I have eaten dinner at the desk while typing. There is a writing contest submission deadline I am trying to meet.
Rita, my protagonist, hopes to steal away from Maggie’s tea cups and chat and make her way to the upstairs medicine cabinet. There is a bottle of pills there, and Rita wants them. Needs them. She hadn’t exactly intended on stealing them, but there they are and here she sits. Nerves on fire, stomach jumpy, sweat rising at the base of her neck. She knows she has little to complain about–a good man and home, excellent career. But she needs those pills to supplement her own. To get through the next few days. Maggie, her neighbor, an older woman whose ill husband rests nearby, won’t miss them. Will she? She’s just going to borrow them. Or is she? Can she do that to Maggie? Is Rita really a thief and an addict? Or is she a woman ready for change?
I keep writing, glance at the clock. Close to midnight. I have to get up in the morning and go to work. I figure I have three more nights to work on the short story, get it down to 3500 words and submit it by midnight 9/1/11. The story is saved and I head to bed. The next night and the next I labor, eyelids heavy, mind weary but bursting with ideas and characters. I awaken in the night and keep company with Rita and her worried, stalwart husband, Wade, as well as kind Maggie and her failing spouse, Jonathan. The story nags at me at work each day. Is it good enough yet? What needs revising? What are the real odds of it being published in a big glossy magazine? Maybe I should just scrap it and start over. But there is no more time.
The night it is due to be emailed to the magazine, I go over it a last time, but as I decide it is worth submitting I am struck with a frightening thought: the midnight deadline is likely not Pacific Time. I look at my watch. It is nine fifteen. I check the submission rules. The time is Eastern Standard Time. I am too late.
The first reaction is to toss the notebook I fill with first lines, titles and ideas as I say things I hope the neighbor can’t hear. Then it dawns on me: I have spent two weeks working on a short story that will not have a chance in a contest that meant something to me because I was too stressed about getting it done. I somehow neglected to get the time right. I am overcome with disappointment in myself; tears reduce me to wordlessness. Well, it probably wouldn’t have gotten chosen, anyway, I think, as self-pity threatens.
The contest theme was to write about something that reflects an aspect of women’s lives today. One thing I know affects women’s lives and can write about is addiction, since I make a living helping those who struggle with it. And I also have known something of it’s dazzling magic, its nefarious lure and damage. Having survived experiences that can scatter and destroy a woman’s will and dreams, I have been an intimate of those detours beyond the known road, the netherworlds. More was given at great cost to a substance dependency that was accidental, even avoidable, than I can accurately tally. It dragged me through my youth and demanded my life more times than I like to recall. At age twenty I cut a deal with God: help me out and I would do the same for others. In time, the promises came to pass. I am one of the fortunate. I have had at least three lives and the one I live now has only grown happier, richer, broader. Standing on some rubble affords a decent view.
There are millions of alcoholics and addicts in this country. A significant portion of them are women who are often unseen and unheard. Many of those substance dependencies begin with a prescription or two for legitimate reasons, then become an illusory panacea for many other ills. Or perhaps two or three glasses of wine after dinner each night to quell loneliness or fear become a couple of bottles or more in order to feel normal, to get by.
I just meant to get out the message once more: there is freedom from that bondage. There can be a voluptuous renewal after a ruinous life. With help, the healing can make one warrior-strong at the innermost core. Writing is one way I may be able to offer hope.
The women and men, youth and children I write about, then, often emerge in complex patterns from the warp and woof of my own life. There are also innumerable others who cross my path without so much as a nod in my direction, yet I see them and wonder. I pay attention to learn more. But all the other characters arise from unknown origins with something they want to say and do, and they offer small or great gifts from their imagined, powerful lives on paper. They resemble newly incarnate creatures as the story is crafted word by word, line by line. For writing to me is a kind of holy thing, a lifeline, a bridge to distant realms as well as a magnifier of Divine Love. It sweeps me up, breaks opens my mind. It resists pessimism, discovers fascinating company and endures all manner of false moves and then surprises me with a revelation. And through the sometimes tedious process a peace is fashioned that endures and a joy that succeeds even in the midst of gloom or uncertain times. Writing, in the end, asks me to freely give part of my heart and soul to others, and in so doing, the well is replenished for more giving in the non-writing life.
So, I missed that deadline. I am still displeased with my failure to read all the fine print. Rita and Wade, Maggie and Jonathan–they wait in the file. I may have to revise the pages a few times–maybe that’s why it wasn’t submitted this time. Or maybe they need a bigger story. It could be that it was just a lesson once more about what matters most to me and how I need to give it more attention, respect and time. After all, if I care enough to write the stories, I have to care enough to give all I possibly can to every single word, each new beginning. That is how I have learned to live–and write–despite the odds.