The Sunday Rumpus Essay: After the Happy Ending


Once, I worked for a large international accounting firm. I had a good resume filled with the right internships, the right client assignments. Contrary to popular perception, the job was stimulating and interesting; I got to work with a lot of smart people. But over time, a certain unease took hold. The best way I can describe it is that some essential part of me was fading away from lack of use—that my busy, career-focused lifestyle was leading me astray from some central core. Of what this core consisted, I wasn’t quite sure. Over the years, my unease slowly grew.

Ultimately it pushed me into writing. I wanted to find this core before it disappeared for good. Occasional hints floated past: a flash of beauty, a long-forgotten ache, an oddly resonating memory. I grabbed at each one, trying to weave it all into something cohesive which I could view in its entirety and save for the future like a photograph album.

What gradually emerged in my writing was a sensibility strongly drawn to the intersection of beauty and sorrow. Maybe I was wired that way from birth—so many of my strongest childhood memories seem to have that afterglow. Or maybe things were colored by the fact that both of my parents had recently died—I was in my twenties at the time—which heightened my sensitivity to the nuances of loss. In any case, my emotional focus had an intensity that permeated everything I wrote.

I began to publish, with that strange speed that sometimes occurs when people don’t realize how hard the thing they are seeking usually is to attain. I won some awards. More and more, I wondered what else I could accomplish if I weren’t hampered by such long work hours. But did I dare quit? A long gap on my resume would ruin my chances for competitive jobs and back then, in my line of work, part-time jobs weren’t an option. I wavered for years, unable to decide. Some days I was 100% sure I should quit; on other days I was 100% sure that quitting was a terrible idea.

I learned something valuable from this period: if you sit with a problem long enough, the decision makes itself. The rational brain is overrated. It seems to me that the truest decisions, in life and in art, happen on a visceral, almost subconscious level. It’s like the needle of a compass: at first it swings wildly over the surface, but eventually a deeper magnetism asserts itself and the needle finds its place.

When I (finally!) committed to a life of writing, baffled colleagues said, “Are you sure you want to give this all up?” But I was ready. My entire corporate career rolled off my back and, to my amazement, I didn’t have a single moment of regret. I went on to publish two books. The joy that came from creating something of beauty, coupled with the outside validation I received, changed me on a profound level. I developed a quiet confidence in what I was made of; I felt fully centered in who I was and in where I was going. It was a true happy ending.

What happens after a happy ending? That’s simple: write another book. And then another, on a reasonably consistent schedule. Keep improving at the craft you love.

But I didn’t reckon with the fact that my emotional urges, once fully explored, would lose their need for expression. During the years it took me to write my two books, I had focused my strongest emotional energies on the intersection between beauty and sorrow. At the beginning of the process, I felt strong enough to hold the entire weight of the world. But after finishing my second book I found myself weaker, less able to grapple with sadness. That part of my brain needed a rest. Its dominance needed to fade, so other parts could have their turn.

I figured the solution was to take on a new project that was less personally driven: something lighthearted, or something that was interesting on a more cerebral level. That way, I could stay productive while my soul rested.

But that, too, was easier said than done. I started one project after another but couldn’t sustain interest for more than a few weeks. I realized that for me, writing was no fun without the intense high that comes from working at full emotional capacity. It’s a certain rush that comes when you’re on the verge of a breakthrough, when your heart is fully open and you’re riding that upswell of pain or joy. Without it, writing didn’t seem worth the effort. For the first time in my life, it felt unnecessary.

In a weird way, it was like clinging to a lackluster relationship and thinking, “Am I in love yet? If I work on this relationship conscientiously every day, will the magic happen?” This kind of thinking turns romance into a grind, and it’s not good for art either. You need a certain amount of magic and spark upfront, otherwise the caliber of your writing suffers.

At some point I had to step back and ask myself why I needed to write that third or fourth or fifth book.

The answer was that an unspoken anxiety hung over me as a published writer: a pressure to stay in the game, a fear of becoming irrelevant and losing my identity and achievements. I recognized the feeling from last time: the careerist’s fear of stepping off the track and ruining a good resume. This fear had infected me subtly, and I saw that over time it would edge out the purer motivations that had led me to write in the first place. It would change the artistic choices I made.

Which was too bad, because writing literary fiction is—at heart—really more of a calling than a career. It’s easy to forget this. We writers attend to self-promotion and branding with the zeal of businessmen. We leverage our CV’s to get speaking engagements and teaching jobs so we can pay the bills and lead middle-class lives. All of which is fine and necessary, but sometimes conflicts of interest arise. At the end of the day, if I couldn’t be fully authentic within a calling, if I couldn’t pursue an art without putting ego first, then what hope was there?

So I stopped writing. This was, by far, the most painful part of my journey as a writer. It meant letting go of a publishing trajectory that had been successful, unblemished and almost effortless. It meant letting go of an identity. But Rilke said it best: “A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity. This, its source, is its criterion; there is no other.”

My break stretched into several years. I knew of no other writer, not a single one, who had taken a break as long as mine. Had something inside me died? “What a shame you’ve stopped writing,” people said with a hint of censure—a weird throwback to my accounting period. On some days, I was sure my writing days were over. On other days, I held out hope that my old urge would return. By now I knew not to force it; the compass needle would settle wherever it needed to settle. Time passed and nothing changed, so I slowly accepted it, though it was a bitter pill to swallow.

To be fair, it wasn’t bad all the time—just once in a while when I really missed what I had lost. The rest of the time there were lovely compensations, the biggest of which was losing the constant guilt that “I should be using this time to write.” My writing had begun with me fighting to carve out time from a heavy corporate workload. Even later, this antagonistic tug-of-war between writing and everything else in my life never really went away. Whenever I slacked off on writing (which happened often—I worked cyclically and was never a prolific writer), I felt the heavy pressure of unproductivity. Only when I stopped writing did I realize how quietly oppressive it had been.

Freed of guilt, I found myself embracing “unproductive time” with an almost childlike pleasure. I enjoyed a lot of simple things, like lying in the grass and looking up at the leaves of a tree. I read a lot of nonfiction during this period, mostly history, which somehow got me hooked on the ways people in poverty or war created domestic comfort. This sparked numerous experiments in the kitchen, inspired by different cultures and time periods: fermented foods, homemade bone broths, austere peasant concoctions. They required manual labor, but now there was plenty of guilt-free time. If you childishly made believe, as I did, that food was hard to come by, the labor became a meditation filled with a sense of the precious. I taught myself lost skills such as flower arranging and mending, admiring the ingenuity with which past generations had elevated the common act of living. It felt oddly joyful, reminiscent of the “pretend games” I used to play as a girl. It was vital and nurturing, with little scope for existential sadness.

These sorts of lowly arts aren’t validated by society; you can’t put them on a CV next to your last published novel. They’re not visible to anyone but yourself. But Robert Henri, the early 20th century painter and teacher, was a huge proponent of integrating art with daily life. He wrote, “I am not interested in art as a means of making a living, but I am interested in art as a means of living a life. It is the most important of all studies, and all studies are tributary to it.” He believed that art was simply the result of expression during “right feeling”—in other words, a side effect rather than a goal in itself. He believed an artist’s primary focus should be not on producing as much art as possible, but on being “in the wonderful state which makes art possible.”

This is a scary concept, given our anxious publishing culture. But I was drawn to the freedom it offered, to the spiritual luxury we so seldom allow ourselves. I wanted that luxury for myself. And I vowed that if my writing ever came back, I would give it a proportionate place within my life. I wouldn’t allow it to outrank simple daily pleasures, or to cloud my days with guilt.

And eventually a day came when I realized that my sense of beauty had become more aligned with happiness than with sorrow. Soon afterward, my writing started to come back. I should clarify—I didn’t actually start writing. The change was more basic: an instinct to mentally hold an idea, or an impression, up to the light. An eagerness to ride out the full wave of a complex emotion, without stepping off halfway. A glimmer of what I hadn’t felt in so long: that well-rested sense of being strong enough to hold the weight of the world. It hardly matters now what sort of writing emerges as a result, or how much, or where it will be published—what matters is this feeling, and I’m humbly grateful it has come back.

I suppose it comes down to this: growth is not within our control. It isn’t linear, though we try to make it so with constant productivity or continuous improvement. Most upsettingly, it doesn’t confine itself to a single neat “career track.” It’s scattershot, mysterious, like the creative process itself.

For many years now, I have worked with MFA students whose goal it is to publish and have their talent validated. They remind me of my own early days, when I too believed those were the greatest artistic challenges to overcome. I had little sense, back then, of the ever-widening circles of progress that go beyond publication—each circle requiring more courage than the last, each bringing me closer to my bare, unadorned self.

Mary Yukari Waters’ fiction has appeared three times in The Best American Short Stories. She has also appeared in other anthologies including The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, and Zoetrope 2. She is the recipient of an NEA grant, and her work has aired on the BBC and NPR. She has published two books, both with Scribner: the short story collection The Laws of Evening (a Barnes & Noble Discover Award for New Writers selection), and a novel, The Favorites. Waters received her M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine. She is a core member of the UC Riverside Palm Desert low residency M.F.A. Creative Writing faculty. More from this author →