The Tattoo Story


Cool sewing tattoos

Cool tattoos in the photo, right? But my tattoo’s not there. In fact, the tattoo artist cocked an eyebrow at me when he saw what I wanted. “Fifty bucks is the minimum,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how small the tattoo.” Two minutes later, my tattoo was finished.


That’s the word I had tattooed on my hip that October evening during my first year of teaching. I needed a reminder that to attain any future, I have to say yes to it in the present, to choose it one decision at a time.

The yes inked into my skin is my best defense against my internal critic’s poisonous commentary. She eyes my piles of notes skeptically, hissing, “How’s this mess going to make you a writer?” She sprays venom as I teach, “Do you see any improvement? What can they do any better than when they first came to you? What do they know?” But she’s an ignorant bitch, a naysayer, the enemy. She refuses to acknowledge that growth takes time, that it’s cumulative, that it starts in the present moment. I drown her out with the yes that gets things done, the yes that keeps me working.

Seven years later, that tattoo still answers the questions that matter: Am I going to write? Am I going to teach? Am I going to parent? Am I going to make today count?

Difficult daily decisions add up to forward progress. It’s up to me to do what it takes to write. It’s up to me, too, to pay attention to the world around me. I am no Borges, no Milan Kundera, ladling stories from a brilliant conceptual soup. I need the present—it gives me material for my writing.

When I catch myself wishing away the hour, restless in my skin, I slap my hip squarely on the tattoo. Wake up, I scold, This is it. Pay attention! I mind each moment for the detail that might lead to a story: the hand hovering over a birthmark, the suitcase chucked into a ditch, the suggestive warning label, the pancake-flat Texas vowels.

Writing offers us a way to do something radical with what we observe and experience. I know I want more than to nibble my daily square of bland bread, content with not being dead. I want to claim the writing life moment by moment, yes by yes.


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