Courtney M. McSwain, Writer

Anatomy of a Freelance Writer’s Life: Falling in Love with Writing

Perfect Stranger Mezone Image

“Perfect Stranger” by mezone (Flickr Creative Commons)

To stay motivated as a freelance writer, it helps to remember the moments when you’ve fallen in love with writing. Here are a few of mine.

Moment 1:
When I was 17 and a senior in high school, I discovered Nikki Giovanni. The first collection of her poems I read was Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day. I found Giovanni, or maybe she found me, when I was at the precarious place of not quite being grown, yet wanting to be; not quite being settled on who I was, yet eagerly anticipating the moment of realization. When I read the first poem in the book and came upon the refrain:

“I am cotton candy on a rainy day/ the unrealized dream of an idea unborn”

I was floored. There I was, on the pages of a poetry book. My feelings about life—a mix of fear, anxiety and aspiration—had been articulated perfectly by a complete stranger and it amazed me.  That’s when I learned my first and most valuable lesson about the power of writing: At its best, writing transcends the individual experience of its author and becomes part of the consciousness of the universe, speaking to readers in ways that the writer never imagines.

Moment 2:
When I was 20, I read the The Prisoner’s Wife, a memoir by Asha Bandele. In it, the author tells of how she met, fell in love with and married a man while he was in prison. The Prisoner’s Wife is a love story and to make sure everyone understands that, Bandele opens with this passage:

“This is a love story like every love story I had always known, like no love story I could have ever imagined. It’s everything beautiful—bright colors, candle-scented rooms, orange silk, and lavender amethyst. It’s everything grotesque, disfigured. It’s long twisting wounds, open and unhealed, nerves picked raw, exposed.”

Even with such clear direction, when I first read The Prisoner’s Wife, I missed the real essence of the love story entirely. What resonated with me was the pain Bandele described, from previous relationships gone wrong to the loneliness she felt loving someone who was physically confined. I connected to the anguish in the book because I, in college and going through growing pains, was experiencing my own season of loneliness. Reading Bandele’s memoir, I felt that somehow she and I, writer and reader, were confiding our pain to each other.

A year later, I re-read Bandele’s memoir and, to my delight, it was like reading a completely different book. The love story was apparent because I was in a better place to see it. On my second reading, I didn’t feel the dark so much as I felt the passion. I didn’t feel the blues so much as I felt the jazz. I didn’t feel the pain so much as a felt the love. Bandele was right—The Prisoner’s Wife is a serious love story. Now I revisit the book on occasion to see how it, or rather I, have transformed and what new elements I will see. That’s another thing I love about writing: It’s ability to be what the reader needs it to be at any given time.

Moment 3:
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I only learned about Joan Didion a little over a year ago. I first read about her in the November/December 2011 issue of Poets & Writers magazine. The care with which that article treated Didion made it apparent that she was someone I needed to know. I went to the bookstore and stocked up on anything with Didion’s name on it. I started to read The Year of Magical Thinking, the true story of Didion’s grief after she lost her husband. It didn’t take long to understand why she is so esteemed. Didion uses words sparingly, quietly, strategically. The emotional intensity of her work requires brevity; otherwise, it would be too much to handle.

There is a scene in The Year of Magical Thinking, when, after her husband’s funeral in New York, her daughter flies back to Los Angeles. Plagued with health issues as well, her daughter collapses at the Los Angeles airport and has to be rushed to the hospital for neurosurgery. Didion writes:

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

In this line, Didion gives the reader a breath to digest the fact that she has just said goodbye to her husband and now her daughter’s life hangs in the balance. A breath to think about how life changes drastically in the amount of time it takes to put luggage in a rental car. And in the instant of reading that line, I fell in love with writing because of its ability to succinctly capture truth.

***

Being in love with writing is an important part of a freelance writer’s life because it is the love that sustains us through the difficult times. And it is also the love that helps us create art–something that transcends and transforms and tells truths in ways we haven’t yet imagined.

 

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