I was alone on the upper floor of the three-story house. I needed a place to write and my friend had offered the empty house to me for the weekend. It was a spec home. The year was 2008 and the economic recession had left it unsellable. The silence amplified all the small sounds a single human being makes when moving around an empty room: the rustling of my clothes, the way I shuffled my feet a bit across the new carpet, and the echo of my own breathing. The bedroom where I planned to stay had vaulted ceilings and high windows, letting in the stark, winter sunlight of late afternoon. I set my bags down. A single, bare mattress on the floor was the only object in the room. I had brought a blanket and pillow, a few snacks, and my laptop.
I first began to write in my late twenties. I had five small children and no education or any real writing experience. But I had a burning desire; a creative wildfire that needed to be channeled. I knew nothing about literature or publishing. To remedy this, I read every book I could lay my hands on to learn how it was done. And I wrote daily. Of course, I was constantly interrupted by my responsibilities and the kids, but I learned to keep mulling over a chapter while I made dinner and scribbling down some notes for later on a pad I kept handy. I wrote at night. I wrote during the day. I wrote in the early mornings when I couldn’t go back to sleep after being up half the night with a crying infant. Writing was the most thrilling, soul-satisfying and deeply engaging thing I had ever done.
My own ignorance allowed me to write with total freedom. I didn’t know that my writing was subpar and that it would take many years to cultivate the skills and confidence to become a professional writer. I audaciously submitted my work to newspapers and entered contests, surprised by the steady stream of rejections. The editors and writers who read my early work were kind, (for that I am most grateful) and gave me good, useful feedback. And I kept writing. And I got better. The pages stacked up, the chapters took shape and finally after six years, I self-published my first memoir. Before the ink was dry on the first book, I was mapping out a plan for the second book. And that is when things changed.
I thought the first book would pave out a smooth path for all the other books I wanted to write. And though I sat down to the computer every day, instead of writing I found myself distracted, spending untold hours scrolling through websites and mindlessly shopping online. Days rolled into weeks. Months passed and I had barely amassed a few measly chapters.
I felt fragile and uncertain about my writing. All those rejections had penetrated my armor. I had slogged through so many drafts of my first book that I never wanted to look at it again. I had weathered an onslaught of negative reactions from family members for revealing the secrets we had all kept so tightly protected. I was overwhelmed by the expectations for “the sequel” from readers on Amazon and Facebook where I was promoting my first book. The attention didn’t feel like praise or encouragement, it felt like pressure. Everyone was waiting for the next book and I had nothing. I desperately wanted to reclaim the passionate intensity that had driven me to write the first book, but it seemed beyond my reach somehow.
So I locked myself up in a big empty house with nothing but my laptop to see if I could break through the mental stress and begin writing again. I opened up the computer and brought up a clean, crisp Word document. The cursor blinked at me. Come on, it said. Come on. Come on. Come on. I closed the lid. Maybe I needed a shower. But there was nothing in the bathroom. Not even soap or a towel. I clearly hadn’t thought through any of this. I sat on the mattress and opened the laptop again. I placed my hands on the keyboard and typed random letters as fast as I could. Maybe by just moving my fingers something would happen. But I grew tired after a few minutes and stopped. I snacked on a bag of almonds and I flipped open my phone to check for messages from home. Perhaps the kids needed me. I could always drive back. I was less than an hour away. No missed calls. I doodled on a notepad making flowers and swirls and little pyramids inside of larger pyramids. It was early still, but sleep was becoming more and more attractive. When it grew dark outside, I made my way downstairs to lock all the doors. I dilly-dallied around the kitchen, opening cupboards and wandering through empty rooms. Finally, I turned off the lights and went back upstairs. I closed the bedroom door. It was completely dark. The moon had risen and was casting a ghostly light across the floor. I crawled under my blanket, wrapping it tightly around me and tucked my phone under my pillow.
I awoke suddenly to the sound of knocking. I lifted my head up, trying to remember if I had locked the bedroom door. My heart was racing. I held perfectly still, straining to hear footsteps and thought of every movie I had seen about intruders, wondering how I was going to get out of a third story bedroom and down to my car. I could hear nothing though. Not even a whisper. I lifted myself onto one elbow and reached for my phone. It was 4:00 a.m. I opened it, hiding the light under the blanket and quietly dialed 911 holding my finger on the send button. I imagined two of them, dressed in all black, waiting outside the bedroom door, weapons glinting in the moonlight. I could feel my breath, short sharp intake and the exhale raggedy and unsure. Had they left? Did they know someone was in the house? When nothing happened, I began to relax and even against my will I felt sleep creeping back over me. I don’t know how long I had been sleeping when I heard it again. Knock, knock, knock. I sat straight up, this time quite awake. The knocking had been very near to me. Was it on the wall above my head? Right next to my ear? The realization was instantaneous. It was inside my own head! Then a voice said, “If you don’t open the door how can I come in?”
I don’t remember anything else after that until the sun awakened me as it filled up the room with morning light. I remembered with slight alarm the loud knocking during the night. I untangled myself from the blanket and went to the window. There was a fresh layer of snow. No footprints anywhere. I opened the door and peeked down the stairs. I knew the whole experience had been in my head, but the fear had been so real. The sound of the knocking had been so insistent and that voice so confident. “If you don’t open the door how can I come in?”
I didn’t even bother to get dressed but pulled out my computer while still in my pajamas and opened a new document. I didn’t wait but wrote the words that were there, pushing at the door of my mind. I am afraid. I am afraid to fail. I am afraid to write what I think. I am afraid of what others will say about it. I opened the door and fear came through. Then worries, anxiety, and self-doubt. Judgment and criticism weren’t far behind. Once they arrived on the page, I felt more words pressing, more thoughts wanting to be invited in. I wrote and wrote and wrote until my back ached and my mouth was dry from hanging open in concentration. The words tumbled out of me like rocks rolling down a mountainside, picking up speed and momentum and I felt a strange kind of joy as I tumbled down with them.
The door was me. And I had been locked, and frozen in fear at the knocking on the other side. I had gone beyond the writing of a book. This was different. I had stepped into the realm of creative work. My life’s work. My calling. I learned that day that while I had the power to open the creative door, I didn’t get to decide who should come knocking. As long as it remained closed and locked, I could keep my self-recrimination and insecurities at bay but my potential, my most brilliant, powerful work would also never be written.
Creativity was not outside of me; it was the very core of my being. It is the very core of my being, ever calling to be made manifest. The door is always there, and I am the only one who has the power to open it or close it. Whenever I feel lost, out of alignment, or filled with confusion, I listen for the faint sounds of knocking and for the wise voice that calls me home.
SUSANNA BARLOW is a full-time writer. Her memoir Not in My House is about her life in a polygamous family and how she overcame the struggle of surviving abuse. It won First Place for Creative Nonfiction in the Utah Original Writing Competition 2017. An excerpt of her book was published in Artists of Utah 15 Bytes in 2018. She enjoys helping other writers with one-on-one writing guidance and as a developmental editor.
Featured image: Photograph by Nathan Walker on Unsplash.