How Fear, Death, And Grief Pushed Me To Write My First Novel 'The Atomic Weight Of Love'

I set out in my little, compact writer’s boat early on, at age eight. I had no fears of waves, of storms, and given my home in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I knew nothing of the dangers of capsizing. My writerly boat brought me awards in junior high school, the notice of teachers who read my work to classrooms and who extolled my talent. In high school, I was still writing short stories, getting them published in the high school literary journal and then winning a national award that resulted in numerous offers of college scholarships. I was set. I could sail anywhere in the country, with substantial financial assistance. My boat was steady, strong, watertight. I was confident my voyage would take me to lands of exotic spices, wild, windswept cliffs, and readers who found meaning in the stories I had to tell, an affinity for the characters who populated my thoughts.

In college, I read great literature and relished in dissecting it with intense, enthusiastic professors. I gloried in the unmitigated brilliance of Shakespeare, consumed like manna the Romantic poets, and wedded myself to William Faulkner, to his brooding, painful places that spoke so intimately to my own wounds. My poetry and prose were published in the college newspaper. My professors told me they’d rarely seen a talent like mine; some even said I was more talented than they, and then they went out of their way to help my boat on its journey toward dreamed-of lands.

On one bright spring day not long before graduation, I announced my plans to my mother. I would take the money she and I had saved in a joint account – all my years of lifeguarding, of working – those savings. I would combine them with a small inheritance from my great-grandfather. I would move in with my boyfriend (to save money, or so I said), and I would write. I would write. I would write.

But then that verb that had meant so little to me came into play: I capsized. I foundered on the rocks of my mother’s disapproval.

But then that verb that had meant so little to me came into play: I capsized. I foundered on the rocks of my mother’s disapproval. Because my mother disapproved of my decision to live with a man without marrying him. It was the early 1970s, and that kind of arrangement was still very much frowned upon. She screamed and yelled. I did, too. We cried. And then, when I wasn’t looking, she emptied out the joint bank account of nearly $20,000 – the money I’d intended to live on while I wrote my first novel.

Stubbornly, I moved in with my boyfriend. I went to work as a secretary. My mother and I were at war – we didn’t speak, other than her saying things like “I don’t know where you got your morals, but certainly not from me!” During the day I typed others’ words, and at night I tried to write. I lived in a house without heat. We had a mattress on the floor, and at night mice ran across our bed. I wrote less and less; it took so much energy just to live, it seemed.

Two years passed, and I plotted a different course. I’d go to law school. I’d set right horrible injustices. I’d do something good with my life. At least I could do that.

Whether or not I “did good” over the thirty-plus years of my legal career is not for me to say, although I know I helped a few people toward better lives. My writing skills let me draft persuasive legal briefs. I made enough money to move out of the mouse-infested hovel. I found another man, a man of immense intellect and fierce integrity – another lawyer who was also a photographer – and eventually we married. I wrote some stories, and they won awards and were published. I wrote for radiology journals, legal publications. But my boat was not moored at the right dock; it did not rest at the dock dedicated to novels, to long, meaningful stories.

The man I so adored spent a year being tortured and dying from cancer. He was wheelchair bound; he endured five surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy. Although for the most part he managed to deny the inevitability of his death, at the same time he grew to realize what he’d never do, what we’d never do. There would be no trips to Portugal, where he’d once lived. We would not hold hands into old age. Helpless, I watched him suffer and wither away. I watched his regret.

When he died, I swore that I would not die beneath a mountainside of regret. The only way I knew to bring some modicum of meaning to his suffering was to learn from it.

When he died, I swore that I would not die beneath a mountainside of regret. The only way I knew to bring some modicum of meaning to his suffering was to learn from it. And so I walked away from the law with a year’s worth of savings. I sold my beloved home. I allowed myself no excuses, and I made it through countless nights of insomniac worry. My mother, who was still alive then, was intensely worried by my decision to forego any sort of safety net. This time, however, she confined herself to saying, “Well, you have more spirit than I did.” When I saw her fear for me, I at last realized that way back then her motivation had been identical: She wanted her child to be safe. And so I assured her that I was safe, that I’d learned that worse than risk is not risking. Worse than the perils of rough seas is dying with a dream untried.

And so my boat has at last completed its journey. My first novel is published. I am a writer. I am a writer. Readers can feel the heft of my novel, flip those pages and smell the print. They can be moved by Meridian’s story, by my story. And maybe, just maybe, they can be changed and challenged by our stories – to do, to act, to reach for that dream too long held in abeyance.

Elizabeth Church is the author of The Atomic Weight Of Love, out now from Algonquin Books.