When I’d started my MFA, I thought of myself as this infant planet, all compressed carbon and lava and stardust as I solidified my commitment to a creative life. I was done with the 9-to-5 at call centers, pharmacies, and even a bank that was also a café. I was done suppressing the sensitive artist inside. Already in my early thirties, I decided “now or never” was the battle cry, and I went for it. My creativity found a home, and it was never moving out. I filled journals, binders, filing cabinets with writing. Two and a half years in, I began work on a novel–A NOVEL–that would become my graduate thesis–MY GRADUATE THESIS. Then 2014 happened and a new formation of this planet: fatherhood.
Just a week shy of the end of the spring semester, my daughter was born. There was joy. There was crippling fear. Would writing survive this major change? I reached out to a mentor of mine, and she threw me a lifeline.
“Here’s what you’re going to do,” she said. “Whenever you feel scared or overwhelmed, you’re going to write about it–to me. Send me an email that says ‘Dear Megan’ at the top, and just go.” So I did, and her selflessness kept my creativity alive. I was a father, and I was still a writer.
On the night of August 18th, everything changed again. We went to sleep before midnight, my wife just back from her first shift after maternity leave. We were both exhausted from what we thought was going to be the first day of our new normal. Around 4:00 a.m. a raging fire began to devour its way into the kitchen of our third-floor walk-up from the wooden porches at the rear of the building. It was set by an arsonist.
The details are nearly infinite, and they’re permanent. If this were a post about how to survive a house-fire with your family, I could deliver a Time Life commemorative collection of hardbound volumes. As it is not, there are two things I should make clear: We all made it out alive (even the two cats), and that infant planet, already in a state of turbulent change, was knocked clear out of orbit.
I took off a semester from grad school to start laying a foundation back under our young family. Dealing with the insurance process alone was almost a full-time commitment, let alone finding a new home that wasn’t a hotel. I managed to save what little I had of my thesis from my damaged laptop, and when I returned to school in the spring, I practically limped to the finish line.
For the next year and a half, my thesis was all I wrote, all I ever worked on. I stopped being a writer and became some combination of student and survivalist. My writing nook was gone. My books were gone. I even fell away from my usual writers group that I had been with since before grad school. I was all page counts, deadlines, and finding quiet corners in cafes to do this work. The joy of creating faded into this nomadic pursuit of an obsolete plan. The pain was real. The nightly fear of going to sleep with my daughter asleep in another room was mind-altering. The guilt of not seizing every last free minute to write was crushing.
But time went on as it does, and wounds began to slowly heal as they do. The guilt lingered for a while, too, but I’ve gotten better at casting it aside. I give myself permission to stop clinging to the old plan, to be a human and focus on all the important human things. Life doesn’t care about any carefully calculated orbit; it just does its beautiful, random thing. We have to live and deal with whatever gets thrown onto our path. We have to feel it deeply, let it do its damage, survive it. Creativity, like any other form of energy, can’t be destroyed, it can only take different forms. I knew I had to leave myself open to whatever those might be.
I still have long periods of quiet, of waiting, watching, and listening. As life moves forward, between the deep, restful breaths of my sleeping daughter, lava cools, stardust settles, and the sun rises as I sit in my new nook, at my new desk, and settle back into orbit.
Jeff Toth recently earned his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His work has appeared in 3Elements Review, The Vignette Review, and onstage with 2nd Story.
Read Jeff's essay, "Friday, January 31, 1986."