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  • allisonmhartley

Arcs Poetica: Writing as A Form of Resilience

Originally read during #MCN2020 Virtual conference, November 2020. With deep gratitude to David Nunez, whose generative writing practice inspired this essay, Seema Rao for offering feedback on a first draft, and Lori Byrd-McDevitt and Eli Vida for general support.

This is not a story about museums. This is a story about what life is like when you get laid off from a museum This is a story about writing. This is a story about how I thought I was a museum person first and foremost, but when the world stopped and I couldn’t do the thing I loved, it turns out I was actually a writer all along. This is a story about finding resiliency in the non-museum parts of your life.

Let me backtrack. I have always been a writer. In the third grade, I came in late to school the Monday after winter break. Instead of having an hour to write an essay about how I spent my break, I had five minutes. Constricted by the time, I wrote a poem. I remember sheepishly showing it to my third grade teacher, afraid I’d get in trouble for not following directions. Instead, she submitted it to the local newspaper as “the best writing by an 8 year old she had ever seen”. Screw museums, I guess. I’ve been a writer for longer.

My relationship with words has been the longest off-and-on relationship of my life. Believe it or not, after majoring in creative writing as an undergrad, I almost got a MFA in poetry. I didn’t. Someone somewhere convinced me museums were a more secure career path for people who liked telling stories. I don’t know who convinced me museums were secure—I bet they don’t work in museums. But I kept writing, for a bit. I wrote to express myself professionally, and connect with others. I joined a poetry workshop for fun and met my husband there. What can I say? Writing is not solitary.

The further I got into my professional career as a museum educator, the further creative writing got from my life. I began writing freelance articles for publications like Hyperallergic—but that was still museums.

I thought a lot about what it meant to create—not just create meaning from objects that were there, but to create when you had nothing else. The word stanza means room in Italian. A poem is a building, stanza by stanza, room by room. Rooms are places you can escape to. Or rooms are places you can be trapped for months not working during a pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, I was on the museum hamster wheel. As an educator doing too much for too little pay at too small a museum, I was always chasing the next conference, the next promotion, the next new program idea. The work of work was taking me away from what I loved about the work in the first place—the core meanings of the stories, the communication.

When I got sent home from work on March 18 with vague instructions that they would call us back in early April and that we were furloughed, not working from home, I didn’t know what to do with myself. At that point, I wasn’t looking for a job—I had one, we would return in April. You all know how this ends- I did not go back to work in April. The world shut down. What I had done all my adult life was not essential. To hear what you do is non-essential; how do you get past that? How do you feel essential as a person when the one thing you’ve been focused on for years isn’t?

It’s more than a paycheck. Work gives meaning and purpose to the days. We’re all museum people because we love this. Unable to do the things I loved,I had to find my own light as all the lights in my world turned off one by one. So what I did, when I couldn’t do museums for a time, was I made writing my job. I forced myself to get up at 8 am every day, sat at my desk and wrote. I gave meaning to the endless stretch of pandemic days by creating worlds to disappear into, worlds where even if there wasn’t a happy ending, I at least knew the ending. I could control it.

The pandemic made one thing abundantly clear: you have no control over anything in life. I live in New Jersey. In one week, thirteen residents died at my grandma’s nursing home. My friend’s aunt died and when I went to CVS to pick up a sympathy card, they were all sold out. I live next to a funeral home. I saw firsthand what the pandemic meant. My safe place was my fire escape, where I would write.

I was furloughed for four months, back at work for four strange weeks, then my position was eliminated. There’s an invisible curtain that dropped between people who kept their jobs and those who didn’t during this. Those who worked and those who couldn’t. A lot of my museum friends who stayed in their jobs didn’t want to look too hard at what it was like on the other side of the curtain. Some are not my friends anymore. I worried that the fact that I didn’t do anything for my museum career during the paralyzing days of being furloughed would hurt me once I was laid off. I needn’t have worried. Finding myself outside of my work made me better at the museum work I do.

I think a lot about the fact that no matter how hard I worked at my job, it didn’t matter on March 18. I kept running on that hamster wheel—and it didn’t matter. I couldn’t save my job, and I couldn’t save my team from being laid off. As a manager, as a person, it was devastating. But I’m really proud that I used the stillness of that time to embrace writing my own resilience practice.

I’ve been obsessed with the idea of resiliency lately. So much has happened this year. If you told me a year ago what was in store for me, I would’ve said, that’s too much, I would crumble. But I know even when I’m scraping the bottom of my resiliency jar, my base level is higher than it was a year ago. Writing is a form of resilience.

Writing is a form of resilience. That has nothing to do with museums. That has everything to do with museums. The day I got laid off, I remember talking to my division director, and telling her, that while it was devastating, I also had something on the day I was laid off in July that I hadn’t in March. I had my writing practice. I wrote my way out. I wrote so much. I wrote a full-length play that’s since been performed virtually, several one act plays that have won competitions nationally and internationally, poems. I’m dreaming of ways that I can integrate my writing life with my museum life once this is all over. I think there are lots of possibilities. My story ended up okay. I somehow got another museum job. I don’t really know how that happened, I hope somewhere whatever of myself I put into museum world was repaid. Either way, I’m grateful. But when I think about my life as it was rendered during the pandemic, I think that resilience begins in putting it to words. Words give us the strength to go on.

If there’s a moment where you’re not feeling particularly resilient, I invite you to write with me. I hope you’ll find in words more resilience than you can imagine. If you got laid off and want to vent, please reach out to me. You are not alone. This is not about museums. This is about the individual resilience practice of the people who work in museums. We are so much more than our institutions.

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