The Story Behind “What My Premature Birth Taught Me About Writing” by Dallas Woodburn

Dallas-Woodburn-black-and-whiteToday’s post is written by Dallas Woodburn. Her essay “What My Premature Birth Taught Me About Writing” appears in our Spring 2016 issue. 

Being a “preemie” is an aspect of my identity that has shaped my life, and that I have been writing about in various ways for as long as I can remember.

In middle school, I wrote an article about being a preemie for the newsletter of the local hospital. In high school, I became pen-pals with another preemie living halfway across the country, and we wrote letters to each other about everything from our school crushes to our favorite books to our dreams for the future—including our worries about having our own children someday, whether they too would be born prematurely. When college applications asked about challenges overcome, I described weighing two pounds, six ounces at birth. Years later, in my M.F.A. program, I wrote nonfiction about being a preemie, attempting to delve deeper into this aspect of my identity and exploring themes of gratitude, the random nature of sheer luck, and the importance of narrative.

But it was not until recently that I thought about my preemie identity in relation to my writer identity.

As a writer, I receive rejections all the time—it’s part of the creative process, an unavoidable facet of launching your work into the world. I like to believe I have become relatively thick- skinned and am able to shrug off the disappointment and return to the task at hand: my writing.

But, not too long ago, I was beginning to feel discouraged. I had signed with an amazing literary agent for my novel manuscript, and she was diligently and hopefully sending my book out to publishers, but all we received in response were rejections—kindly worded rejections, but still. They stung. I had worked so hard on this book! I felt like I was letting down my agent who had taken a chance on me—not to mention, I felt I was letting myself down. I had spent my whole life dreaming of being a writer, and for the past decade I had invested again and again in my craft: a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, then a master’s degree in Fiction Writing; a yearlong writing fellowship; numerous freelance writing gigs. What if it was all a waste? What if I was deluding myself? What if I simply wasn’t good enough?

I forwarded the latest email from my agent, with another polite rejection from a publisher, to my dad, with the message: sigh. Minutes later, he wrote back: Have patience and keep the faith! P.A.S.T.

P.A.S.T. is an acronym from my childhood; it stands for “Preemies Are So Tough.” Throughout my life, it has been an inspiring reminder that I am stronger than I often give myself credit for. Although I do not remember being on a respirator, in an incubator, hooked up to feeding tubes and wires, these things are all part of my past. Survival is in my blood; the memories course through my veins. P.A.S.T. is a mantra that means I can persevere, I can overcome, I only need to keep fighting.

Reading my dad’s email, I realized that I had been viewing my identity as a preemie through too narrow a lens. “Preemies Are So Tough” does not only apply to physical challenges—like when I climbed to the peak of Mt. Whitney or pushed my body to the limit in a 5K race—or to emotional strength, such as when I called off my engagement in my early twenties to an explosive, manipulative man. P.A.S.T. also applies to my creative empowerment: taking risks, exploring new terrain, pushing myself to try different things in my writing. P.A.S.T. means having the discipline to plunk my behind into the desk chair first thing in the morning, to spend an hour working on my novel-in-progress before the sun comes up, when I want nothing more than to crawl into my cozy bed and fall back asleep. P.A.S.T. is the mental toughness of dealing with rejection and criticism of my work. Dusting myself off and sending my writing out into the world again. Holding tight to determination and perseverance. P.A.S.T. means being resilient.

I began jotting down a list about all the lessons being a preemie has taught me about writing. That list became this article for Compose, and I am delighted to share it with you. I hope it inspires you to create your own resilience narrative and mantra for your writing life.

About the Author

Dallas Woodburn, a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, has published fiction and nonfiction in Zyzzyva, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Fourth River, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, North Dakota Quarterly, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won second place in the American Fiction Prize and her plays have been produced in Los Angeles and New York City. Her short story collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, the Augury Books Prose Award, and the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. She is the founder of Write On! For Literacy, an organization that empowers young people through reading and writing endeavors.

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