One truth I’ve known about myself since childhood is that I write in order to understand the world. When my soul threatens to break under the weight of a question, I set out like an explorer—with my pen as my boat and the blank white page as the open seas, with little knowledge of where I may go and praying to find new land.
When we started writing BIG WORK, I didn’t know what we would learn specifically. I just knew that I had recently turned 30 years-old, that I was already dangerously close to being a workaholic and I didn’t know why, and that the weight of trying to figure out where work was supposed to fit in my life threatened to break me. So I set out, although this time not alone. I would quickly learn that writing with a partner and having long conversations with interviewees were critical pieces of navigation equipment missing from other voyages.
Before Melissa and I interviewed others, we interviewed each other. We sat down with a tape recorder and asked each other the thirteen questions. Listening to the recording of my interview, it became clear that for me illness and work were inextricably linked. I was sick for the first 25 years of my life, and my biggest goal growing up was not to become dependent. I couldn’t wrestle with the question of the role work played in my life without also getting curious about how an unresolved legacy of illness was still shaping me.
Picking this apart took 18 months of interviewing and writing. There were many stepping stones along the way, but the moment that stands out happened while I was interviewing Safiya, an aerospace engineer born in Pakistan. She talked about having grown up in four different countries, and about being one of only a few women and a few Muslims in her field. The more her story twisted and turned, the more I saw the expectations and complications from her many identities swirling. Every detail of her story seemed to speak of constant change. And yet, it was, in many ways, one of the most lighthearted interviews I did—because she LOVES what she does. She said, “I get to send stuff to space!” no less than a dozen times during our conversation, grinning widely each time. The little girl she described to me who loved science had grown up to be a scientist. It was the thing that never changed when everything around her did.
I’ve always feared that I am who I am and that I do what I do because I was sick. That I’ve made all my choices based on my limitations, real and perceived. But talking to Safiya inspired me to ask myself what hasn’t changed for me since childhood, and I came up with two things: I’ve always been curious and I’ve always been a storyteller. As a young girl, I begged my teachers for extra homework, and was quick with a question for everyone I met. And at four years-old, I would ask my mother to write down the stories I made up because I wasn’t old enough to write them myself.
I’ve seen my work and my life through a lens of illness for so long, that I never stopped to realize that I work in a day job—communications—where I’m paid to ask questions and tell stories. And suddenly all the seemingly disparate parts of my life—the communications manager, the nationalism scholar, the tanguera, the traveler, the playwright, the friend—were linked and made whole by the oldest truth of my life, I am a curious storyteller. I am a grown up version of that four year old little girl. I don’t know what this means moving forward, but understanding this about myself has allowed me to like my work more and to need it less, to find more balance, and to have a deeper understanding of my life.
I believe in the power of story to heal. Writing BIG WORK showed me how connected my life is to strangers and friends alike, and how telling our stories can make us feel more connected to each other. It reminded me that the stories we make up about our lives can be treacherous, but that we can reframe them and write new endings. And it reminded me that wading into the murky, black, uncharted waters of our story can be frightening, but it can also be our salvation. In the process of writing BIG WORK, I found new land.
One day when we were nearly finished with edits and getting ready to cast our first workshop reading, I went out for a walk near my house. I wasn’t even thinking about the play when I heard an unexpected voice creep up from deep inside my heart and say, “This is the last thing I’ll ever write about being ill.” I stopped for a moment, caught off guard, and then I smiled. I think I knew it was coming.
For so long, everything I wrote was about being sick or from this perspective. Because when the reason you write is to understand the world, and when something has taken over your life and you can’t understand it, and you’re trying not to feel it but you can’t let go of it, it creeps into everything you try to write.
That voice I heard on my walk wasn’t a declaration or a promise of future behavior—I may write again someday about that part of my life. But what the voice was telling me was that I don’t need to answer that question for myself anymore, just like I don’t need to answer the question about work anymore. I am satisfied with how that part of my life fits into my narrative now. It is integrated. I carry it with me, but it rides in the back seat; it doesn’t steer. And because of that, I can be curious about other things and wrestle with new questions on the uncharted waters of a new blank page.