Feeding the Ocelot, or Getting Down to Writing

Writer Treena Thibodeau was featured in issue #11 of Newtown Literary. Here, she writes about getting down to work.

Feeding the Ocelot

Nearly twenty years ago, I attended one of those expensive MFA programs where half the people go on to be famous (okay, not half—three. Three is a pretty high number, percentage-wise, of the artsy twenty-somethings crammed around a conference table with their stapled short stories and their opinions). Seriously, famous. Samuel L. Jackson did the audio book for one of them. They were successful.

I, on the other hand, graduated with an MFA, a student loan I would default on under the vague impression that I didn’t really have to pay back all that money, and the certainty that I was a loser. I didn’t write again for almost two decades.

Only that’s not one hundred percent true. Sometimes I would buy a notebook and write on one page of it. Sometimes a good metaphor would follow me home and I’d jot it down inside some better writer’s book for safekeeping. But mostly, I didn’t write.

I read, though. I read the book review for a friend’s latest novel; cult status, it said, and I burned with shame and jealousy, and if anyone tried to talk to me about writing I changed the subject, because I would rather fake a seizure than talk about writing.

It felt like when you know you’re supposed to do something, but you don’t do it for some reason. Let’s say it’s feed a friend’s cat. You’re supposed to be taking care of this cat, but it’s so fucking hard to feed this cat because your friend lives off the J train at the top of a hundred sticky flights of stairs and besides, it’s not a cat, it’s an ocelot or something, and what if you feed it the wrong thing and everyone finds out that you are actually terrible at feeding cats? So instead, you stay home and watch the entire Deadwood series for the nineteenth time because the writing is just so good, and look for something to eat or drink or buy online to stop thinking about how you should really go feed that ocelot because it’s starving to death.

I was supposed to be writing, but I did not write. Sometimes I would read listicles online like 19 LATE-BLOOMING ARTISTS WHO PROVE IT’S NEVER TOO LATE. After all, Toni Morrison didn’t publish her first novel until she was 40; Paul Gauguin didn’t make it to Tahiti until he was 43.

There was still time to feed the ocelot. Probably.

I reached out on social media to the successful ocelot-feeders from my MFA program. And I’m going to abandon the ocelot metaphor now and just say that it hurt to look at their faces and reviews and book covers, to read about their efforts, both successful and un, because they were writing and I was not.

Here’s what finally happened. I had this boyfriend I had met after I graduated, and he was also a person who wanted to make things but had stopped because, once again, it is hard to feed the ocelot. I liked this boyfriend a lot. He was really good at parties. I liked to bring him to parties and be all "Behold my boyfriend!" because he was better than me at parties.

Anyway, we’d been distracting ourselves together for over ten years when one day, the boyfriend went and joined an art studio. Then he wanted to talk about creativity and process and I wanted to cover my ears. For my thirty-fifth birthday, he bought me a new laptop so maybe I would start writing again.

I tried, but it had gotten hard. It was easier to just put in some overtime at my actual job or go to the gym and stare at my abs and keep lifting things until I was too tired to write. I wasn’t home much.

Then the boyfriend let me know he was leaving. I sort of didn’t think you were allowed to just leave after that much time together. But he did, the empty room that had been his studio like the dry socket of an extracted tooth, and I kept having these weird surges not just of grief, but of raw panic. I was pretty sure I was not okay.

What saved my ass, friends, was a blog. I used a made-up name, writing under it every day, and it didn’t matter that other people have written about love and hurt; when I wrote, I felt better. The loss of that relationship still sucked, but it was a manageable suck, the kind that comes in under a thousand words.