Putting Myself In the Way of Beauty

I’m sitting among the musty shelves of New York City’s oldest independent bookstore, unable to stop smiling. After more than a year of living here, I’ve ventured—at last—to my first writing meet in the city. For months I blamed location—the relatively remote Woodlawn section of the Bronx—from joining fellow writers at work.

Sure, I write professionally, covering a local college as my ‘beat.’ But I haven’t devoted enough time to the work that helped me earn my MFA in writing. I’ve blamed my ennui on several so-called failures: choosing to self-publish my novel instead of pushing for an agent, or considering my acceptance into little known literary outlets as too obscure to count. In between, of course, are the countless rejections notes, discouraging me further.

But as I sit here, reborn in some small, vital way among the stacks, I remember the advice another writer gave me long ago: keep everything. Never discard an idea or a piece. Everything counts.

Listening to the sounds of writers working throughout the shop, I realize the persistent inner voice questioning my artistic legitimacy is a shared one. I didn’t come here to discover my next project, but to reclaim what I had lost. In her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her mother urging her to put herself in the way of beauty. I have put myself inside a shop teeming with first edition classics and vintage prints, in the company of other writers united by a single urgency: the need to decipher the world through the page.

Next week, I’ll turn thirty-five. Historically excited about anyone’s birthday, I was dreading my own. Recently I journaled about wishing I’d accomplished more in my career, kept myself fitter, gotten married, traveled more widely, etc., etc. Next, like a child caught misbehaving, I created a gratitude column. I have a good job. Check. I’m going back to the gym. Check. I’m in a happy long-term relationship. Check.

Today I realize there are no checks and balances when it comes to a personal passion. I remember the essentialness of writing for the sake of writing, learning for the sake of learning, loving for the sake of loving. There are no expectations, no desire for reciprocity. There are only possibilities, rediscovered through the sustenance of a bookshop that has survived in America’s arguably toughest city, and that is enough.

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