For my sixty-ninth birthday, my husband bought me a years’ worth of flowers. FedEx dutifully delivers a box on my doorstep each month. I quickly unpack them, trim the leaves, find a vase, and add the special powder to the water. Then I center the flowers on my kitchen table where they’ll last about a week.
That first month I thought, such extravagance! I considered all the practical things I could have used instead. A new bathrobe. A hat to hide my graying hair. But each time I walked into the kitchen, that splash of color brightened my day. It was a minor miracle. A delightful, disarming surprise. The flowers were as lovely as they were useless. I suppose that was my husband’s point.
Alongside the kitchen table sits my writing desk. I’ve always been a writer. In high school, I wrote copy for the yearbook. In college, I majored in English. Somewhere in my closet I have piles of handwritten blue books, my term papers typed on a Smith Corona with more than one funky key. But for the last dozen years, as I turned the corner from middle-aged to more, writing has become an obsession. Short stories. Verse. A memoir.
Inside the world of literary journals, I’m doing well. I’ve learned to handle rejection. And I’ve learned to embrace the times when I’m published with a kind of giddy glee. Of course, I’m seldom paid. And on the rare occasions when I’m sent a check, it maybe covers lunch.
Only after gathering my courage do I tell my friends. Check your inbox, I’ll email. I have something posted that you’ll like.
But while I wait for their response, my stomach knots. If I could see my friends’ faces, they’d be forcing a smile. If they could reach through their screens, they’d be patting the top of my head. Like a child, I’m patronized. Very nice, they write back. Good job! But the subtext always lingers. If you’re not compensated, does your labor have value? If a writer isn’t paid, are words on a screen considered work?
I’ve always been a housewife. I had children to raise and a husband with a time-consuming job. Unlike me, most of my friends led professional lives. In their minds, writing is transactional. They’ve written law briefs, essays for medical journals, applications for grants. They view my efforts as a hobby or indulgence– like playing mahjong or knitting baby booties for the kids.
Maybe they’re right. Yes, my writing doesn’t serve a function. Yes, my writing doesn’t pay the rent. I simply write about ordinary people who lead ordinary lives. An old lady shuffling in the supermarket. A lost child spinning on the sidewalk. A caretaker desperate for help.
And what takes weeks to create has a lifespan of minutes. The reader clicks the link, and it’s hello and goodbye. A story there and not there. A blink and it’s gone! Just like a boxful of flowers.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and World Literature Today. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories.