My mom died when I was twenty-two and she was forty-five. She died of cancer, but it wasn’t the way I thought a death by cancer would be—long and drawn out and cinematic. Instead, my mother was dead seven weeks to the day after her diagnosis. Her death was simple and ugly and it didn’t feel even remotely like a movie. It felt to me that I had died with her, and in some ways, I did. The vision I’d previously had of my life died. I don’t have a relationship with my biological father and though I had a step-father, he couldn’t continue being a step-father to me in the face of his own loss. And so I wandered forth, suddenly an orphan.
It was during this same time that I was becoming a writer. I took a few writing workshops as an undergraduate and met the writers who were my teachers and knew that I wanted to be like them someday, writing and publishing books. By the time I was twenty-three and out of college, that’s what I told people I was doing: writing a novel. It was literary realism; fictional, but informed by autobiography—a tale of a working class family and the rural northern Minnesota community that they lived in, about a mother dying young of cancer and about her kids and husband in their deepest sorrow.
But the fact is, I wasn’t writing a book. Instead, I was working a number of different jobs in order to pay the bills and then quitting those jobs so I could travel around the country in my little pickup truck I named Myrtle. I was drinking herbal tea by day and red wine by night and trying to figure out whether I should stay married to this sweet man I had married too young. I was shopping for cute dresses and funky boots in thrift stores and hiking long nature trails and getting a divorce. I was having sex with ridiculous and interesting people and reading incredibly good books.
I was also writing, learning the writer’s craft, journaling like mad and composing passages that I thought were chapters of my book. I applied for grants and residencies at writers’ colonies and whenever I won one I would quit whatever job I had and write. I would write like a motherfucker, in a fever, sometimes writing for twelve and fourteen hours at a stretch. When the residency ended or the grant money ran out I would find another job and talk to people about this novel I was writing. People would ask when I would finish the book and almost always I would say within the year. And then another year would go by.
I know this sounds crazy, but it’s true: I thought that Torch would write itself. Or rather, that something magical would happen that would make it be written, a force that would take me into its grips and enable me to write a book without too much suffering. Sometime around my thirtieth birthday, I looked up from all the hiking and shopping and odd-jobs and drinking of various concoctions and realized that my novel had not been written, and that it would not be written, not magically, in any case.
I had to write it. I had to. I had to. I said I would and so I would. I am not the kind of person who says she will do something and then does not do it. What I needed was time, I realized, which meant money, which, because I am without trust fund, wealthy spouse, or even parents who let me use their credit card from time to time, meant graduate school. I applied to MFA programs that offer their students full rides, got a full ride, and off to graduate school I went. At graduate school I was given health insurance and a check each month simply for being there. My job was to write.
At last I had no excuses! I could write that novel about the working class family and the rural northern Minnesota community that they lived in, about the mother dying young of cancer and about her kids and husband in their deepest sorrow. Only now I didn’t want to write that book because at graduate school I quickly realized how deeply uncool that book was. My graduate school peers were not writing books about such things. They were writing books about people who were actually Volkswagon Beatles or composed entirely of paper. Or, if they were writing about real people, they were writing about them while also avoiding use of the letter e.
So for a number of months I sat there at my computer knowing how stupid and unexperimental and pathetic I was to want to write that one idiotic story and yet it was the only story I wanted to write, so there was nothing I could do but do it.
I called it Torch because I thought of myself as a torch singer, the one who sings a tale about a love that has disappeared, but goes on. I also liked how the word has connotations of both lightness and darkness, destruction and creation. I wanted to write the best novel that has ever been written in the world, but I finally had to let go of that and simply write the best novel I could write. A novel, I acknowledged, that might end up being mediocre at best, that might never be published or read or loved. Embracing those facts—that I could only write the story I wanted to write and only to the best of my abilities—was extremely liberating and important. It was what allowed me to finally get to work and write my novel.
Graduate school gave me a serious running start, but I didn’t finish Torch until a little more than a year after I graduated. I was on an island in Brazil, at a writer’s colony. I was ten weeks pregnant with my first child and relentlessly, around-the-clock nauseated. It was sunny outside, the middle of the day, but I was in my room, the shutters closed against the heat. I finished the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last page of my five-hundred page novel and then I laid down on the floor and stared at the ceiling for an hour, listening to a Lucinda Williams song I love called “Bus to Baton Rouge” playing over and over and over and over again, her lovely voice singing to me from the tiny, tinny, awful speaker on my laptop computer. It was one of the purest moments of my life.
Cheryl Strayed is the author of Torch.