by S. H. Aeschliman
Trista Cornelius and I have been crossing paths for several years now, sometimes without our realizing it. Every spring, she and Perrin Kerns collaborate on the creative non-fiction class I took at Marylhurst University in 2012. The class in which I produced “On Voice,” a lyric essay that was published in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions. The same issue in which Trista’s creative non-fiction piece “Running with Dragons” appeared.
Months later, not knowing who I was, she commented on the article I wrote for VoiceCatcher’s website about Liz Prato, and we finally connected. Trista, too, has been volunteering for VoiceCatcher; she writes the monthly grammar column, “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes.”
I looked Trista up on Facebook, and it turns out that she’s the same Trista my dad’s wife’s sister has been telling me about for years. The one who teaches college writing. I, too, used to teach college writing.
And if all those coincidences aren’t eerie enough, when we meet for this interview – at a little place on NE Fremont known for its made-to-order doughnuts – she tells me that two days ago she decided to take a leave of absence from her job as a full-time instructor at Clackamas Community College.
“It feels like stepping off a cliff,” she says, and my heart thrums in recognition. That’s how I felt, almost a year ago, when I quit my job at a university to pursue a full-time career as a writer and freelance editor.
She’s taking this leave of absence to pursue a dream: She wants to write and illustrate her own books. “I’m finally gonna give writing and art my full attention,” she says. I am tempted to jump up and down in excitement and wonder at the serendipity of it all, but I manage to stay seated.
Trista is a creative person who hasn’t done much creative work for the last several years, and it’s started to take its toll. “I think there’s potential for damage if creative people don’t make time to do creative work. You’re kind of not a complete person.”
Not giving her creative work priority has “turned the rest of [her] life into a black-and-white film.” She hasn’t felt whole, and she doesn’t think that’s healthy. To Trista, healthy isn’t just the absence of major illness; she wants to find a path to vitality. “I think people in general accept a quality of life lower than it should be,” she says, and adds, “The daily grind takes up all of our energy.” Now she wants to collaborate and create in daily life.
Taking this leap is scary, though. “There is a ton of fear in being creative,” she says. “But failure – what does that even mean?” It can mean being afraid to commit a drawing to paper because it might not turn out the way she wants. And when she’s writing, there are a lot of critical voices in her head. She has the notion – which she knows is false – that there is one right way to do something. “It’s not true, but it makes it hard to write and publish.” And to abandon her schedule, to open up her days to nothingness, feels very risky. But rather than see emptiness, she wants to see possibility.
Trista writes non-fiction, and one of her favorite topics is food. (I almost died laughing reading “Vampire Food” on her eclectic personal blog.) She’s written a book about her own “food transformation,” but, for several reasons, she can’t decide whether to query it. Part of her wants to finish it, illustrate it, and offer it up to people to read. Another part of her wants to find the perfect ending before calling it done.
She also has doubts about its marketability because, although it’s about food, it’s really about making big life changes; the book doesn’t fit neatly into one particular genre. But the truth is that it might be more about that old fear of failure than anything else. “Maybe I’m waiting for a fairy godmother to say, ‘You won’t fail. You can be confident sending it out.’”
Trista tells me that she has a friend who sews. This friend has to tear apart what she’s making three or four times before she gets it right. “Writing is like that, too,” she says, meaning it’s probably not going to come out perfect the first time, that it’s going to take time and energy.
But she’s noticed that she won’t start a project until she’s reasonably sure she won’t have to work so hard at it, won’t have to try it six different ways. “I don’t know why we do this,” she says, referring to writing. “It’s really hard.”
Why does she write, then?
“I think it was Cheryl Strayed who said you can’t run away from who you are. You have to be who you are and write from that place.”
As part of her process for deciding whether to take this leave of absence, Trista did a lot of digging through old things and reflecting on them, including a notebook she’d been using a few years ago. In looking through it, she was surprised to find that, at that time in her life, she’d been “on a roll. On the verge of something really cool.”
But she also remembers feeling like she wasn’t getting anywhere, like it was just a waste of time. Which is why she quit before the “something really cool” was allowed to emerge. She hopes that this time she can stick with it and continue to have patience with and faith in herself.
Trista Cornelius writes Voice Catcher’s monthly column, “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes” and is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature, and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.
S. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance editor. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.