I first encountered the above James Baldwin quote as the epigraph of Dorothy Allison’s searing debut novel Bastard out of Carolina. Allison’s novel will certainly stay with you (the line “What’s a South Carolina virgin? ‘At’s a ten-year-old can run fast,” has etched itself into my bones), but it was the Baldwin that became my clarion call. I was in my 20s then and in the process of making decisions and choices that I was terrified would turn me into someone full of regret and despair. Sometimes, as I got dressed for job interviews or dates, or cancelled plans in favor of staying home with the cats and a book, I could hear my anxious brain whisper, You will pay for this.
And for many years when things went wrong (everything from divorce, bad haircuts, lost jobs, horrible drafts), I worried I was paying for choices I’d made, that I was the embodiment of Baldwin’s warning. It’s only now, well into being what the French call a woman of a certain age that I can see how the payments I’ve made are reaping dividends instead of punishment.
Things I did that used to baffle me – falling in and also out of love, taking jobs, then leaving them, wearing the same jeans or skirts until they gave up the ghost, ending some friendships, nurturing others – all make sense when I consider the life I’ve built. It’s one where writing, reading, and teaching are the center. There’s no room for shopping sprees, distracting people, boring jobs, or books that that ask too much of me. More than most people, writers are forced to ask what we will do and what we will pay to live the lives we want to lead. But no matter the price, we get the writing.
Somewhat obviously, I think that’s worth what I pay. But it’s important to ask yourself, what do I want to do (and pay) in return for a writing life?