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Writerland Works: “Getting Unstuck” by Teresa K. Miller

Today I’d like to introduce Writerland Works, original works written for Writerland readers. This week Teresa K. Miller, author of the poetry collection Sped, writes about “Getting Unstuck” as a writer.


Photo by Dalton Lasnier

Twenty minutes down the dirt road from San Gerardo, the downpour breached every seam in my jacket, and a stream ran the length of my spine. I thought of little should-haves, like putting my cellphone in a plastic bag. Mostly I said the Lord’s Prayer to the rhythm of my breathing, unbaptized and non-churchgoing as I am. The river to our left rushed brown where it had run clear a few hours earlier. Rivulets obscured sporadic patches of asphalt, potholes, drop-offs, shifts in terrain treacherous to a car, let alone an ailing Kawasaki dirtbike. I recalled my yoga teacher training and chanted om mani padme hum. Maybe the lotus flower springing from this mud would not be the one I pictured, not deliverance to our tin-roofed, open-air house, to my mosquito net, to the family of cockroaches on the kitchen shelf.

A couple on a motorbike passed in the opposite direction, the woman on the back holding a full-grown pitbull splayed across her lap. The two male drivers nodded to each other, and a laugh sprang from my mouth so resonant that my friend and chauffeur heard it over the rain.

“You OK?” he yelled back to me.

“They had a dog!” I exclaimed, and we continued our teeth-rattling skid toward the finca.

At home in Oakland, years earlier, I begged my partner not to get a motorcycle; I pictured a multitude of tragedies, perhaps worst my being left alone. In that life, I taught English, and then unable to subsist as an adjunct, I became a special education teacher. No one questioned the drift—since childhood, everyone who heard I wanted to be a writer had said, “Oh, so you want to teach.” The special ed path led to a quasi-administrative position and hours planted behind a desk, where I combed through spreadsheets to satisfy compliance requirements for the California Department of Education. My neck and shoulders wouldn’t stop aching, the result of marathon typing and a persistent lean forward—to see the screen but also to strain toward the future, which I hoped would find me somewhere else, though I had no plan to get there.


Photo by Dalton Lasnier

I went to the jungle because I forgot how to live deliberately, because I’d outgrown my container and wilted from choked roots. Somewhere between high school and my second graduate degree, I lost the single-pointed focus on writing that once kept me awake at night, compulsively scribbling because filling a page was an ecstatic end in itself, an unparalleled form of worship and deliverance, exertion and terror.

Last year I started telling people that I wanted to quit my job. It seemed both impossible and like the right thing to say. If I received a fellowship or won the lottery, I figured my wish would come true. But once spoken, the words lived on; even without a windfall to support me, I made an irrevocable break from my past life. Despite years of deferred pleasure in the name of stability, at the end of the school year, I submitted my notice.

Leaving for Central America on my own with very little Spanish and no Y chromosome, I endured a flood of admonitions to be careful, a torrent of tongue-clucking and intimations of my recklessness. Too many U.S. women are raised to live in fear, despite three waves of feminism and counting, and to expect bogeymen around every corner, thus discouraging us from rounding corners at all. I watched these bogeymen disintegrate as I bussed through the mountains to Rivas.

Though I remembered the travel clinic’s strict advice only to eat vegetables packaged, peeled, or piping hot, I spent my first morning on the jungle farm trailing after the manager, eating leaves and fruits he handed me from the plants we passed, washed only by the previous afternoon’s rain, heated only by the tropical sun. In this fertile Costa Rican valley below Chirripó mountain, I saw I had shed the labels accumulated over the previous decade. Once a committed lesbian, I had married a man; though a wife, I traveled alone; previously a teacher who wrote, for now I was only—only!—a writer; a published poet, I put my pen to paper and the words flowed out prose.

Costa Rica, liminal in all senses, offered no simple answers—at the hinge of the American continents, a magnet for lost ex-pat souls, a deceptively small nation in its unfolding diversity, with campesinos extracting subsistence from the soil next to multinationals packaging a genuine pura vida experience. My searching led to the borderland among selves: the hyper-responsible, stable bill-payer and the untethered spirit who needed none of my familiar comforts. The bike returned me from San Gerardo drenched but intact, and I took the best shower of my life in the fading rainy season twilight, with water from the cold spring and a teakettle.

Before leaving the farm, a fellow volunteer and I resolved to ascend and descend Chirripó, the highest peak between Guatemala and Colombia, in one day. The park rangers, the staff at our staging-ground hostel, and the people at our finca said we were loco: the climb entailed hiking twenty-five miles round-trip, gaining 7,500 feet of elevation to the summit. Most people make the trek in two or three days and still suffer altitude sickness. The longest hikes of our lives had never exceeded twelve miles. Our journey started before sunrise, and we summited around noon. We descended the last four kilometers in pitch dark, with blistered feet down a steep, muddy horse trail. If there is a better analog to writing a book—to the inspiration, endurance, exhaustion, trials, and final triumph of that creative act—I have not lived it.

Having learned that I need less materially than I ever imagined, I’ve begun new projects with a spirit of adventure. In the past I wanted divine intervention to deliver me from a marginal to a “real” life. Now I see ways in my already-real life to flourish, to embark on my next poetry manuscript, to embrace prose, to continue to grow toward the sun.

Sped cover

Teresa K. Miller is the author of sped (Sidebrow, 2013) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2008). She received her MFA from Mills College and was a writer-in-residence at San Francisco’s Sanchez Annex Grotto from 2009 to 2012. Her work has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Columbia Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Conversations at the Wartime Café (WODV Press, 2011), and elsewhere.





What about you, writers? What methods do you use to get unstuck?

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