Our theme for the month of November is “firsts.”
I ate my first avocado on a bench outside of a gas station in Tusayan, Arizona, a small, drab city just outside of Grand Canyon National Park. I was nineteen years old. I knew what avocados were; I had eaten guacamole before, and the occasional avocado garnish, but I had never bought one, and I wasn’t sure exactly how to eat it. I pierced the skin with my fingernails, and peeled it back, considering it. Then, looking back and forth to make sure no one was watching, I bit into the firm, fatty flesh as if it were an apple. It tasted like butter, like green grass, and cool, clear water. It was perfectly ripe. Clumsily, I ate it down to the pit, which I shined with a napkin and stuck in my pocket. A few days later, the pit began to flake and brown. It surprised me. I had thought it would stay firm and bright forever, like a knot of sea-polished wood.
I’ve sat on that paragraph for two weeks, trying to tease it out longer, trying to breathe some life into it. At one moment, it was an awkward two-page essay that tried to weave in lines about friendship and loneliness and my first summer away from home. But I couldn’t make all the pieces fit together.
Some days later the paragraph was a point in a silly list of “firsts” that included “first cell phone” and “first gynecologist visit.” But in a list like that, the careful sentences felt maudlin. I deleted lines, then found myself typing them again word-for-word. It was a first draft I couldn’t get past. I rode home in the bus thinking about avocados.
I started other drafts. There was one about spirituality. It had a beautiful first line, but then got lost in dully careful paragraphs that tried too hard not to shock anyone. I started to write one about my first training bra, before abandoning it for being confessional without anything to confess.
I opened documents and closed them. I typed on my lunch break. I thought, as I’ve thought before—This is it. I’ll never write anything good again.
Writing, my professors would tell me, is both an art and a craft. But only at its most exquisite is it a good example of both. Too often, in late nights staring at a computer screen, I find myself crafting uninspired first, second, and third drafts, pieces that are structurally sound but artless.
Of course I have bad habits in my writing, like using two parallel adjectives where neither are strictly necessary, so that instead of phrases that are deft and natural, I find myself bogged in dense, pulpy prose. I revise drafts dozens of times, until my edits stop polishing and begin to mar the piece like sandpaper on finished wood.
But in general, I am a scrupulous writer. I know how to form sentences. Do you see how this third sentences stretches on longer than the previous two, breaking up the rhythm and making it easier to read? I did that on purpose.
There is even a specific style I slip into without realizing it, one where additions are tacked on to sentences piece by piece, unfolding with just the right number of commas or semicolons. I chop sentences into little pieces, hold them together with punctuation—then I close with a short coda.
All of this happens naturally enough that my real fear is not that someone will think that I write poorly, but that people will think I write without having anything to say. I feel a suffocating pressure to always write something that means something, something that is worth other people’s time.
When I was nineteen, I pierced the skin of an avocado with my fingernails.
I can’t explain why, years later, I’m called back to that moment. It could be an image of my shy determination to try things I had never tried before, whether or not I understood how. Or it could be nothing at all.
It could be the sort of frivolous piece the craftsman rejects, and the artist picks out of the garbage because it’s beautiful and strange and bright like the pit of an avocado, or a knot of sea-polished wood.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).