“Are we there yet?”
“Not yet,” says Andy, as he steers us onto Route 9.
Our 8-year-old, Alex, gazes out the window. “But we’re close?”
We’ve taken Alex to Amherst four times before—once at homecoming, once at reunion, once for a classmate’s wedding and once for our own 20th wedding anniversary. But some of his impressions might be artificial memories, made for him through years of hearing his parents talk about our college days.
I first made this drive 30 years ago as a rule-following, risk-averse book nerd from a science and tech high school. I arrived with no idea what I wanted to do. I had never stopped to consider that there were real people who made a living writing all of those books I loved to read.
Now it’s August 2021, and we’re arriving in town through serendipity. My friend Rachel, who grew up here, called me one day to say a UMass professor friend needed a house sitter in Amherst in August. Did I want the job?
Of course I did.
“There’s one catch,” Rachel said.
Here we go. Every day of our long pandemic year, there’s been some kind of catch. Every day has felt like a challenge, a perpetual game of whack-a-mole, when all I wanted was to simplify.
“What’s the catch?” I sighed.
“You’ll have to babysit chickens.”
“Babysit chickens?” I repeated.
I saw Alex’s eyes light up. This was a perk, not a catch.
Alex would be out of school. Andy wasn’t teaching in August. And I had an unwieldy manuscript to revise. Maybe a few weeks in Amherst would break my fog.
So we packed up our car in Maplewood, N.J., and drove north. And now, Andy is turning left onto Pleasant Street, then right onto Strong Street, where a farmhouse and six easygoing chickens await us. Alex climbs up to the coop and introduces himself. We explore the house and barn, walk into town and pick up Antonio’s for dinner. The tomato and basil slice is as good as I remembered.
It’s our first night here, and already I sleep better than I have in months.
I’ve been doing battle with a novel I’m writing—about perseverance—that I seem unable to finish. I’ve tried on so many storylines, said goodbye to so many darlings already, but still this stubborn manuscript refuses to gel into a satisfying, cohesive final shape.
Not long ago, my agent gently asked how my edits were going, and I lied, “Fine.” He paused, then said, “You’re not alone. Everyone is feeling a little lost, a little stuck. Keep going! Resilience! Onward! You remember how this works, right? You write stories, then I try to sell them.”
My agent’s a funny guy. I think about what he said. There’s so much emphasis these days on resilience. We know we need to pivot, to reexamine our priorities, to do the things that really matter, for our families and ourselves. But in our busy, complex lives, it can feel impossible to find the space to do those things.
Years ago, before I really tried to write, before I ever believed I could be a novelist at all, I was sitting in a corporate auditorium, at a management meeting, my mind wandering from the PowerPoint, when I heard the CEO on stage say, “If you’re not finding meaning in your work, then you’re in the wrong line of work.”
Soon after, I signed up for a one-night-a-week intro to fiction writing workshop.
Now, here in the farmhouse, I have a similar awakening: in order to finish my book, I’ll need to remember why I started writing. It makes sense that Amherst would be the place to remember this.