Sometimes the Work Changes You

I said last week that, as I see it, my main job is to be the person I need to be to write the story I want to write. This is something that is true for me: a large part of being a writer is trying (and failing, and trying again) to be a better human. Not everyone does writing this way, and that’s okay. But for the books I want to write, I will only be able to write them if I become kinder, more compassionate, more open, more thoughtful, more curious. And so there are parts of my writing practice that don’t look like writing but are integral to the process, things like therapy and tarot and meditation and intentional interactions with strangers.

The thing about doing writing this way is that sometimes the converse is also true: sometimes the writing helps me become the person I need to be for something I am about to encounter in my life.

I recently felt compelled to finish the nonfiction project I’ve been working on, to add details that would make the characters come alive and to finally fill in all of the TKs about my family. That led me to days lingering over the section that contains this:

When my grandmother was 25 years old and had three kids under the age of five, she left her husband. He was abusive, and she was entangled with someone new: an electrical lineman who played semi-professional baseball and had a tattoo on his right bicep of a skunk holding a flower. Below the skunk, drawn freehand, the word STINKY.

I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered that I am not genetically related to my Grandpa Duke. Old enough to remember my mother saying, “It doesn’t matter. He raised me, he was there for us. He’s my dad.” 

Grandpa Duke formally adopted my grandmother’s kids, and then they had two more. Or maybe they had two more, and then he adopted the other three. Growing up, I always pictured my grandmother single for a time before she met Duke. My mother tells me now it was messier than that. My grandmother was pregnant, and Duke had a choice to stay or leave. He chose to stay.

My Grandpa Duke died on Tuesday. I am lucky for so many reasons: I was able to drop everything and fly to Illinois, to sit by his hospital bed and hold his hand and tell him how much I loved him. To express my gratitude for something that had only become clear to me through writing about it: “Thank you for adopting my mom. I think it was one of the best things you could have done in your life.” To tell him how his choice, which couldn’t have been easy, affected my life for the better.

“It was my pleasure,” he said.

Sometimes the work requires you to change, and sometimes the work changes you.