This Is Not The Essay I Meant To Write: On Writing Into Uncertainty

Megan Pillow

Here’s a secret: every night when I go to sleep, I put my dog Lucy’s collar under my pillow. When I toss and turn, I hear the jingle of the tags. It was the sound of her in the background of my life for sixteen years. It makes me dream of her. When I wake up, I shift, and I hear the tags again. For a few minutes, I live in a world where she’s still alive. 

I don’t know how to start this. I’m not sure how to make a beginning out of something that isn’t finished yet, out of something that began so long ago. 

I don’t know where this essay is going. The truth is, I’m writing this in the dark. 

I close my eyes and point to a place on the page to insert the next sentence. I take each section as I write it and shift it around. I’m not sure what this essay will look like by the time you find it. 

Right now, I’m reaching the end. This is me, saying goodbye. I don’t want to write anymore. 

This is me, leaving the page. 

And yet. 

Here I am. 

Every morning, after I remember again that my dog is dead, I get up, and I go for a walk. I walk the fence row of the horse farm next to my parents’ cabin in Kentucky, where I’ve lived with my kids since the pandemic began. I take the path I used to take every morning with Lucy. It’s hard to break the habit, and so I let my body do what it’s used to. 

I walk, and I carry my cup of coffee, and I look for proof of life. When I see a new green leaf, a daffodil bud unfurling, a horse pulling grass in the field next door, I take a photo with my phone. I pluck a clutch of flowers. I send the photo to someone I love, and I bring the flowers to my mother to remind us all that there’s more to the world than death. 

I cry, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Every time I cry, I think about Lucy. 

I think about the way her fur felt under my fingers, the sound of her bark, the lick of her tongue against my hand. I think about how she was the best dog, of the ways in which she shaped me. I think about how when she died, I held her in my arms as her heart stopped, and I told her I’d love her forever. I think about the miles we walked together under the branches of innumerable trees, across the sand of dozens of beaches, in the golden pink light of a thousand sunsets. 

And I think about how just like the sunset, this image is too fucking rosy. 

The last year with her was hard. She wasn’t able to get up anymore on her own because her legs were too weak, so she’d yelp every couple of hours throughout the night. It was like having an infant again, like crawling back a decade, like starting over. She’d shit in the house because she couldn’t make it outside in time. She’d snap at me sometimes when I moved her because she was in pain and sometimes, even the gentlest hands weren’t gentle enough.

Here’s the truth: sometimes I grew impatient with her. I got frustrated with how slow she walked, irritated at how often she interrupted my sleep. Every once in a while, I’d get so tired, so frazzled that this thought would flit across my brain for a moment: It would be so much easier if you’d die in your sleep

And then she’d lean against me and put her nose in my palm and look up at me with the same eyes she’s had since she was a puppy and I’d think God, dog, I don’t have words for how much I love you, God, dog, I just want to catch you up and press you in a book somewhere so that you stay forever. God, dog, I’m so sorry. 

And in that moment, I hated myself. I’d thought a terrible thing about one of the beings I loved most in the world. My care for her was constant, but my heart was not: for a moment, my love and compassion and kindness had failed. I’d failed her, and I’d failed myself. 

 You fucking asshole, I’d think. She’s been here, loving you, every day for sixteen years. She’s so old and in so much pain. You’re all she’s got. You’re going to miss her every day when she’s gone. 

She’s gone. I miss her every day. 

This isn’t the essay I meant to write. I’m supposed to be writing you a craft essay. But it makes sense, I guess, because there’s no real order to grief. So instead of attempting to wrestle this narrative into the shape of a lesson, I am trying to pay attention to where it’s going and to find the lesson there. 

And then of course, I think about how I should pay attention to writing as a mode of narrative discovery more than simply when I’m grieving. And so I ask myself questions: 

What happens if we show that piece is what it is rather than show what it means? What if we humor Susan Sontag and start with erotics—what Dominika Czakon notes is “direct experience of the work as what it simply is…independently of the viewer”—and not hermeneutics, or interpretation? What if we try to see and synthesize nonfiction through something other than just a theme or an argument? 

What if, instead, we navigate a piece of writing by recognizing the different patterns at work, by seeking out the different points of affinity?

There’s this moment early in Jane Alison’s craft book on writing narrative where she talks about that moment of recognition when she understood that narrative could develop as something other than an arc. Instead, she notes, in a lot of fiction “many structures that recur in [the] texts coincide with fundamental patterns in nature.” 

Alison charts, among other things, the appearance of waves, meanders, spirals, explosions, cells, and fractals as the organizing principles of narrative that have just as meaningful an intent as the arc. 

These patterns also appear in our nonfiction. These patterns also sometimes change as we write them. Like the nature they’re patterning themselves after, they are dynamic, and they evolve. 

This is the aesthetic of uncertainty, and for now, it’s where my writing lives. 

Here’s the truth: the constant theorizing about writing and literature exhausts me. The thing about Sontag is that she always gives me something to argue about, and I’m not trying to build an argument here but to acknowledge an aesthetic. 

Here’s another truth: the constant theorizing about writing and literature is something I love, and argument is inevitable. 

Theories do not by their nature have to be in opposition. We can acknowledge hermeneutics and recognize its existence alongside erotics. We can acknowledge that they can coexist, just like we can acknowledge that I loved my dog and that I cared for her until her death but that I also wished for the end sometimes and hated myself for it. 

The truth, my failures, your interpretation, my love—in the aesthetic of uncertainty, none have primacy. They populate a common space, and I make room for them all. There is a need, of course, in our writing, to move toward something: argument, empiricism, ethics. I’m not suggesting all elements will hold the same import when the piece is finished. What I’m saying is, when you write into uncertainty, you are giving yourself over to not knowing the outcome of your writing process. You may think you are writing about one thing, but then the current of words and the ideas lift and carry you someplace else. You are stepping into the unknown and though you may not know where you’re going, you still believe you will get there.

What matters here, in this moment, in this essay, is uncertainty, and writing into it. So, here is this essay, a clutch of flowers I picked for you, the buds still tight. Let them bloom a little. 

You know, of course, that this essay is about my dog and isn’t about my dog at all. 

This isn’t the essay I wanted to write—about my dog, or all the people who keep dying around me, or even the one I wanted to write about uncertainty. But this essay is a demonstration of it. It’s what happens when you’re grieving and you realize that grief isn’t a place you visit but the landscape where you live, and you have to walk again and again, even though you can’t walk your way out, just to chart the landscape better. It’s what happens when you want to write about uncertainty and you realize that the only way you can do that is to feel uncertain as you write. 

The aesthetic of uncertainty allows contradictions to coexist in the same narrative space. It also allows that narrative space to take on something other than the shape of an arc—instead, the narrative may take on the shape of a circle, or the curve of the petal, or the rippling waves of my cry. When we write into uncertainty, our narratives sometimes look like the explosive pluck of the flower I bring in from my morning walk, or they disassemble like the flower that dies and sheds its petals, or meanders like I do when I gather those petals up and put them in my pocket and head out to walk and cry and pluck a flower again. 

This is to tell you: it’s okay to abandon the arc. It’s okay to embrace the unknown and to uncover the shape of the essay as you go. It’s okay, too, to say this isn’t the essay I meant to write, but this one is the one I had to write first to get there. 

Let yourself circle, meander, wander. We need to do that sometimes to find our way. 

We are all grasping at meaning. 

This isn’t the essay that I meant to write, but it’s the one that I wrote my way into. I think of how my grief resisted logic but still helped me chart a path to honesty, how it won’t let me process every detail yet but forces me to hold onto these fragments, like flower petals. I leave them here, as if pressing them into the pages of a book for safekeeping:  

Here’s a secret.  

I don’t know where this essay is going.

This is me, leaving the page. 

And yet, here I am again. 

I cry, and every time I think about Lucy. 

She was the best dog. 

I don’t have words for how much I loved her. 

It would have been easier if she’d died in her sleep. 

I hated myself for thinking that. 

I miss her every day. 

I remember the God dog, the way I said it over and over. I understand those words mirror each other for a reason. The dog is a mirror of every dead person and every dead thing. I look into that mirror every day. I remember that everything reflected back at me has a shape, if I will do the work to find it. 

Perhaps writing this is a way of trying to forgive myself. I’m not sure yet. But I know that, when I’m ready, I’ll take these fragments up again. I’ll write my way into the uncertainty, and I will try to find the shape of something new. 

Megan Pillow

is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky. She is project manager for Roxane Gay and co-editor of The Audacity, Dr. Gay’s newsletter. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in, among other places, Electric Literature, SmokeLong QuarterlyGuernica, The Believer, TriQuarterly, and Gay Magazine and has been featured in Longreads. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky with her two children.

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