Since April I have been writing and writing and writing, hard at work on my unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln. Nearly 80,000 words have flowed from my fingers, revealing the need within me to get my relationship with Lincoln and the field of Lincoln Studies out of my body and safely onto the page where it will no longer be unfinished business. Fits and starts, this writing, as strange to me as this biography-slash-memoir-slash battle cry, because everything I write since Mack died is hyphenated with battle cry. Writing this genre-bending book has been a scary struggle, artfully melding history with personal narrative has posed new challenges for me. I am making progress, but the process has been messy and painful. I’ve lost myself and my way a dozen times these past five months.
There have been crazy flurries of frenetic writing, words flowing onto the page like refreshing cold water gushing from a garden hose on a hot summer day. However, progress has often been followed by historic droughts, which leave my mind and my heart parched and thirsty for the words that will not come. Words abandoning me and my fingers sitting idle on the home keys are new experiences for me. I’m not used to these dry spells. I have been lucky in my writing life, rarely blocked or conscious of writing, the writing itself a joy and the research or preparation for writing the difficult task that paralyzes me. I’ve always been a weird historian that way, and I do not like this new feeling of writer’s paralysis.
Yesterday, when I was supposed to be writing on a free-and-clear Saturday reserved for working on the book, I was instead sitting on my porch, rocking and staring out into the front garden. As I was working up the nerve to return to my computer and risk another rejection from words, the mail arrived with a neatly addressed envelope postmarked Kirksville, MO. I knew my writing was done for the day. Because I also knew the letter was a handwritten thank-you note from the latest Truman State University recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship. The eighth such letter. The eighth scholarship bestowed on a creative writing student at Mack’s alma mater. These letters are a solace. Eventually. After good a cry and a little distance. First, however, they must do their damage. They must crack open the wounded side of my heart, scabbed over since last year’s letter arrived. The scholarship is a beautiful legacy to my beautiful daughter, but it is a starling reminder of all the life my baby has missed since the previous scholarship recipient was named.
Dammit. It never gets easier. It gets different, but it stays brutal, hard, and unforgiving.
This is why, for me, writing and grief and life have been braided all together into a thick strand of rope. Some days the rope is around my neck, threatening the breath within my body. But most days the braid is a lifeline. Thankfully, I have learned not only to see that lifeline but to take hold of it and let it save me. The arrival of this year’s letter coinciding with my cursing the failure of the writing was a reminder that life is the reason and should also be the respite.
I think right now I am struggling because for the first time the writing threads of my braided lifeline are loose or a bit frayed. For eight years the writing has supplied the tension necessary to hold my weight, allowing the balance of grieving and living to be less burdened. I am far less adept at striking a healthy balance without the writing. I need the writing, and it scares me that the words have failed me. I understand these truths. I accept them. But I also know that writing this very personal biography of Abraham Lincoln has stirred up a brand new cocktail of emotions, opened old wounds, and triggered doubt. My work, my writing, my life, Mr. Lincoln, and my darling Mack are tangled up all together in this project, and I took for granted the power of the writing to make sense of the knots.
And so, on a day of writer’s block and the arrival of a letter, I gained some clarity. I have no answers, really, and the doubts they do linger. However, I have named the trouble and it is mine, not the writing, to tackle. A dear friend who is also my writing therapist recently told me I needed to step away from the writing in order to play. In other words, I need to let life carry the heavier burden of my braided lifeline.
The trouble is that I have not been so good at living these long eight years without my girl. I have rarely had the energy or the mindset for play. Work and writing, along with yoga, have been my saving graces. My challenge now is to lean into living, which a recent long weekend away with four of my oldest and dearest friends showed me I can do with energy and with joy. I need to cut myself a little slack and live. I can no longer take the words for granted, because it turns out my Lincoln book needs more of my own grit. I have been confident in this unusual writing project of mine, but I have doubted my ability to do it justice. The fear, I think, has scared off the words that have always flowed naturally and unencumbered. If I want to complete this project—and more than almost anything I’ve ever attempted I want to complete this project—I need to dig deeper. I need to locate in my bones the belief that my life is the power, not the words or the writing.
My life is the reason this unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln is possible. My knowledge and my experiences will guide me if I let them. Mack and the grief and my writing texture the story I want to tell and need to tell, but the living must fuel the narrative. Because this is a story of my life, and I cannot tell it on autopilot. I need to be present for the process and remember that I have all I need to do the work. I still have a full year before the manuscript is due. I have 80,000 words already. I have the historical expertise and a damn good story to tell. There is time to find myself in this project, to make sense of what I have written thus far, and to write what will be needed to complete the story. If I let myself live while I’m looking for the truth this work requires, the words will come. They will arrive when I am ready to summon them, because I they were mine all along.