An excerpt Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces by Kelly J. Baker, published by killing the Buddha and Raven Books in October 2017. Reproduced by permission.
What do you do when your life doesn’t go according to your plan? Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces is about building a life failed dreams and missed opportunities. Kelly J. Baker finished her PhD in religion and hoped that she would get a tenure-track job. She had done everything right: written a well-researched and award-winning book about the KKK, given presentations at national conferences, published articles, and created and taught a number of popular classes. Doing everything right, however, isn’t a guarantee, especially if the humanities job market crashes. In the modern university, the career she trained for was no longer sustainable. But after five years of job rejections and a new baby on the way, she decided to take a year off to figure out if the career she trained for was actually the life she wanted. Grace Period is a book of essays that she wrote to make sense of how her life went off-track. Expanding on her popular Chronicle Vitae column of the same name, she documents her transition out of academia and the emotional turmoil of rebuilding a life beyond what she had prepared for. Instead of telling an easy story about her exit from the academy into a brand-new post-academic career, Baker resists smoothing over the hard reality of transitions, the importance of waiting and anticipation, and the realization that the lives we imagine for ourselves are tenuous at best and often are impossible to achieve.
This excerpt is about giving advice, even when you don’t want to, and realizing what you said might have been what you needed to hear all along.
I woke up on Sunday convinced that I had no words left. That I had nothing to say, and perhaps, I was done as a writer. That I had already written my best essays. That I had no good sentences left in me. I was out of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I was done.
Sundays are rarely writing days for me. Weekends are family time, so I let my partner and kids distract me from the angst chasing me. They are always my favorite distractions.
On Monday morning, my alarm on my watch buzzed me at 4:45 a.m. There was a plane to catch to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I had been invited to Elizabethtown College, where my friend, Richard, teaches, to give a reading at Bowers Writers House. My reading was from an essay on Dozier School and my hometown, one of the most personal essays I’ve ever written. (A story that is still unfolding and that I am chasing as hard as I can.) The day before I was to be a visiting writer, I was convinced that I might no longer be able to write. The irony was not lost on me. My angst was fitting, and truth be told, somewhat expected. My writing life can be narrated as story of doubt, angst, and anxiety. I keep trying to tell another story, but this is the narrative that continues to emerge.
As I pulled out of my driveway, I probed this fresh (and melodramatic) concern about writing. Out of the neighborhood, take a left, pass construction and new development, take a right, drive past big churches and small churches, other neighborhoods, stop at red lights, and take a right onto I-10 to get the airport. The interstate snaked in front of me, but the darkness of the early morning meant I could only see what the headlights made visible.
Why, I thought, did I feel like I had nothing left to say? Was I not nourishing my creativity? Were there no more stories for me to tell? Was I actually running out of words? This seemed improbable, impossible even. Of course, there are still things I want to write. At any given moment, there’s a revolving set of essays stored in my head, on to-do lists and Post-it notes, and in my journals and planner. Perhaps, what I really meant was that there are topics on which I have nothing left to say. Topics that no longer interest me. This could account for some of my fatalism, but not for all of it.
While trying to figure out my anxiety about writing, I noticed the sign for mile marker 190 on the interstate. I missed my exit to the airport six miles ago. On I-10 outside Tallahassee, the next exit was nine miles away. I looked at the darkened road stretched before me and slammed one hand on the steering wheel. I could cut across the median, but it is uneven with sharp inclines and declines. The morning was too dark to navigate it safely. I didn’t want to wreck my car in a stupid attempt to make my plane.
“FUCK,” I screamed. And then, I screamed in frustration. And screamed again. With my rage expressed in a mostly wordless howl, I began to breathe deeply. I briefly comprehended why my toddler yells in anger. The sense of calm that settles on you afterward feels pretty spectacular.
I kept driving. Miles passed by quicker than I imagined: one, two, three, four, and then nine. I turned onto exit 181 and managed to get back on interstate headed in the right direction. I would make it to the airport in time for my flight, but I could feel the tension taking over my shoulders. I needed to make it there soon. “Typical,” I muttered, “This is typical. I get distracted and miss a turn.”
But, I only missed a turn. I was able to make it again when I had another chance. I made my flight and then the next. When the plane touched down at Harrisburg International Airport, there was snow piled on the edges of the runway. It was grey and slushy and beautiful. I snapped a picture of the snow for my daughter.
When I gathered my purse and laptop to deplane, I found myself thinking again, What if I have nothing left to say? Hell of a visiting writer I was going to be. Visions of cherubic undergrads asking me about the writing life bounced around in my head. Wide eyes and eager smiles waiting patiently for me to disperse wisdom. What would I even say? I got a handle on my nerves as I walked through the concourse, by security, and beyond baggage claim. By the time I reached the parking lot, I decided to table all of my concerns and enjoy my time with Richard and his students. Angst can always wait.
Hours later in my warm hotel room, Chris called to check in. We talked about a recent post on Impostor Syndrome. He sent it to me earlier, and I read andtweeted about it. I admitted that I live and breathe doubt as a writer. This was likely nothing new to Chris. We’ve been married 14 years. He knows me and my neuroses pretty well. But still, the moment felt like a confession.
“I look over my essays and wonder what if I’ve written the best essay I’m ever going to write? Or the best sentence?”
I can almost feel Chris’s smile through the phone. I close my eyes and imagine his dimples and the mischievous glint in his eyes. He laughs his easy laugh, one of things that I love most about him.
Teasingly, he asks, “That sentence from the last issue of Women in Higher Education? Or maybe the best word is from your ‘I look like a professor’ essay?”
There’s a dramatic pause. “What if your best word is ‘the’?”
I dissolve into giggles. “I’m pretty sure my best word is ‘asshole’ in the upcoming issue.”
We laugh together.
After the call ends, I recognize that this is my familiar anxiety before a break through. That I’m not so much afraid that I have no words left, but that the words that I have to give are part of a bigger project, likely a book. That I’m finally ready to direct my creative energies to something else. I have newer and different things to say.
I’m at a beginning, and I’m terribly afraid. The road is dark. The headlights only illuminate a few feet in front of me. I’m not sure I’ll make my exit, but I’ll get another chance. I keep driving anyway.
Kelly J. Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD who covers religion, racism, higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, and popular culture. She’s written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, Chronicle Vitae, Religion & Politics, Killing the Buddha, and The Washington Post among others. She’s the author of an award-winning book, Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (University Press of Kansas, 2011) and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture (Bondfire Books, 2013). Her newest book is Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces (killing the buddha and Raven Books, 2017). She’s also the editor of Women in Higher Education. When she’s not writing assignments, editing, or wrangling two children, a couch dog, and a mean kitty, she’s writing about zombie apocalypses and their discontents for the University Press of Kansas, pulling together a collection of essays called Sexism Ed on higher education, and slowly making her way toward a collections of essays about endings and other apocalypses.