The Story Behind “Boots” by Jessica Barksdale

JBarskdale_HeadshotToday’s post is written by Jessica Barksdale. We published her creative nonfiction piece “Boots” in our Spring 2014 issue. 

From 1987 to 1993, I took a long writing hiatus. After finishing my Master’s thesis and giving birth to my second son in the summer of 1987, I just stopped scribbling poems and taking notes about stories. I kept thinking I would write a long historical novel sent in The Raj, full of British people and mythological symbols. But instead, I thought I’d try to earn some money. That and breastfeed.

By 1989, I’d found a full-time teaching position at a local college and figured out—sort of—how to teach. My children were past diapers, enrolled in pre-school, and we were no longer broke enough that my first husband had to sell wares at the flea market on the weekends. He was a teacher, too, and things had been hard. Now, they were better. And then my youngest sister died.

Like nothing else, this sadness pushed me back into writing. Among the first long narrative pieces I wrote, “Boots” examines a scene I kept going back to in my thoughts. This essay focuses on a time that was perfect to me, those years at home before kindergarten and the horror of realizing I wasn’t like the rest of the kids. The feeling that started then was the feeling of other. Surely useful as a writer, but not good in school, any year, except maybe college.

But after my sister died, I kept sliding right back to that time when things were good. The before the before. The place where if I could stop things, I might, for a moment, for a bit. This was the place my grief could rest.

And then, like most writers, I wanted someone to read about my most private sadness. In 1995, I used Boots” to apply for a workshop with Grace Paley. On the basis of that essay, I was accepted. 

I would love to write that Grace adored my essay. That she was so enthused, she found a way for it to be published immediately in The New Yorker. But she didn’t love that early draft. She was kind and real and had great suggestions that I worked in before the participant reading, but she much preferred the story I wrote later that week about being in labor. It was funny and true, and when I read it in class, she laughed like crazy and said, “Well, I wish you’d read this one.”

After I returned home, I worked a bit more on “Boots,” and then I put it away for about twenty years. There it hung in my C drive all alone formatted in a .wps file, which I later found almost impossible to open.

In the process of moving files to my new computer, I rediscovered “Boots.” I dusted it off and found myself loving that warm safe place again, the cocoon of mother and sister time. When I saw the Compose call for work, I sent it out, hopeful that after so long, someone else would appreciate this place, too.

The good news for me is that Compose has a thoughtful staff, editors who don’t say for-sure-no to something they like. I was asked to make changes and did, thanks to the editor’s thoughts and to some careful notes my best friend gave me.

After the sad inspiration to write it, Grace’s thoughts, a very long gestation period, a friend’s guidance, and the time and thought of editors who saw something in my piece, “Boots” was accepted for publication.

Seeing it online, I was able to note that my pre-kindergarten time is not the time I’m writing about now. So much has changed since. The pain of my sister’s death and the shock of her absence has dissipated, sometimes so much that I forget her for a day or two, a week, a scant month before I have a hit of missing her. I have written long novels and had them published (though nothing about The Raj). My children are all grown up and far away from home. I’m onto my second husband, and no one has sold anything at a flea market in forever. But what is the same is the desire to express myself through writing, no matter if it’s joy or sadness or grief. So much has happened in between the first sentences I wrote of “Boots” and now, but what’s still there is the impulse to tell you what I’m feeling. I want you to know. I can’t help it.

About the Author

Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. Her latest novel is forthcoming in the fall from Ghostwoods Books. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at

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