Seven years ago, I picked up a rental car in downtown Seattle and drove five blocks toward Interstate 5, which would take me north to catch the Mukilteo ferry. I went up a steep hill and pushed hard on the brake at a red light, the car sloping at a precipitous 45 degrees. I was nervous, so I was being extra careful. You're nearly there, I told myself. Just hold on.
The journey to that rental car started on the other side of the country in a New York City subway full of commuters. The air conditioner was broken, and I was trapped between a briefcase and someone's sweaty armpit, listening to the conductor apologize for the delay. Outside the window was a dark tunnel and I thought: I have to get out of here.
At the time, things weren't going so great in my life. A love affair had ended badly. Several family members had been diagnosed with cancer. I had three jobs but struggled to make ends meet, crossing my fingers each month that the rent check wouldn't bounce. Nights and weekends I worked on a novel about a group of factory girls at the turn of the century that was as lost as I was. Deep down, I knew that the characters were flat, that the story had no spark. But for two years I had sweated over those sentences and even tried to publish them, revising and getting rejected over and over, tap-dancing for editors who shook their heads.
I'd done this before, at jobs and in relationships, believing that if I changed myself enough, I'd be accepted and recognized. Do you like me now? Do you like me now?
Clinging to the pole in that smelly subway car, stuck between stations, something broke in me, and I had a vision of exactly where I needed to go.
Ten years earlier, at age 26, I'd quit my job, sublet my apartment, and traveled to a place called Hedgebrook. Located on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle, Hedgebrook is a writing retreat for women. Its mission is to strengthen female voices from around the world, and its advisory board includes visionaries like Sarah Jones, Eve Ensler, Ruth Ozeki, Suheir Hammad, and Gloria Steinem. I could write a whole column about all the ways that Hedgebrook has changed my life, but I'll sum it up with this: Before Hedgebrook, I did not call myself a writer. After Hedgebrook, I did.
When I was finally sprung from that subway car, I went home and looked up pictures of Whidbey Island. The dramatic cliffs topped with pine trees. The bleached driftwood lining rocky, misty shores. The woods covered with bright green moss and layers upon layers of ferns. It was perched at the edge of the country, but it might as well have been the edge of the world. That night, I reached out to Hedgebrook, and the next morning they reached back. The staff was entirely different from when I was there ten years before, but they kindly helped me find a cabin to rent for the week, and even offered to let me stay for free in an empty cottage on the property, so I could tack on a few precious writing days. I put the trip on my credit card, flew across the country to Seattle, picked up my rental car, drove five blocks, and there I was, idling on the corner of First Avenue and Wall Street, waiting for the light to change.
The light turned green. I slowly eased off the brake and put my foot on the gas, sliding back for a moment on the hill before inching forward. And then, halfway through the intersection, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something blue hurtling toward me.
Everything moved in slow motion — like I was in a dream and knew what was going to happen but couldn't stop it from happening. The blue car smashed into the passenger side of my rental, crumpling the metal frame, spinning me round like an amusement-park ride. Then everything stopped. I saw people running and other cars swerving, and I saw smoke. The next thing I remember, a policeman was prying open my door. He helped me onto the sidewalk. He'd been stopped at the light — the same one the blue car had run through, crashing into me and two other people.
I looked at the rental car I'd been driving. It had been transformed into something completely different. The side crumpled like an accordion, the wheels twisted and bent, the headlights smashed, the glass in the window shattered. Coming to Seattle was supposed to be a fresh start, but my string of bad luck had followed me across the country. What else could go wrong? Then I remembered that I had not taken any rental insurance. If the woman who hit me did not have coverage, I would be on the hook for over $20,000.
The policeman asked me if I was all right. When I nodded, pieces of broken glass fell to the sidewalk, catching the light like tiny stars.
I realized then that I was lucky. Lucky I wasn't dead. My cheeks flushed, and I felt my body start to vibrate, like it was tuned to a new kind of frequency. I shook the rest of the fragments from my hair and got to my feet. After the paperwork was signed and our statements were taken and the tow companies came and pulled the wrecks away, I limped the five blocks back to the rental store. Remember me?
I got a second car. I drove through the same intersection, my heart beating like crazy, my palms slick on the wheel. This time, no one hit me. I made it to the ferry. Crossed the Puget Sound. Drove off the boat and onto Whidbey Island. When I arrived at the cabin, I poured myself a stiff drink. My back hurt and my neck hurt and my hands were still shaking. But I was alive. And that was a place to start.
I decided to let go of the novel I'd been struggling with, abandoning it like the smashed-up rental car on the side of the road. It was time to stop tap-dancing. A lot of people were never going to like me or my work, especially this factory-girl novel that was making each day at my desk feel like a chore instead of a joy. I needed a fresh start. A new car. The next day I started writing The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, a novel that weaves back and forth in time and spans across America, using the legend of Hercules's twelve labors to tell the story of an ex-criminal and his daughter, and all the ways he risks his life to keep living.
The insurance came through from the woman who hit me, and with some more luck, my family members survived their hospital stays and operations. I picked up another part-time job and slowly pulled myself out of debt, chipping away each month at those credit-card statements. I painted over my broken heart.
And for the next seven years, I poured everything I had into what I'd started on Whidbey. This time, the novel sparked, even as it led me to dark places. I put my protagonists through the wringer and looked for ways to keep living. To keep trying. Sometimes you spend a long time on the wrong path, and it takes everything getting smashed to set you on the right one. I'm not sure I would have ever found my story if I hadn't brushed that broken glass from my hair.
Hannah Tinti is the co-founder of One Story magazine and the author of the novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, out now.