Relentless Files — Week 37
*An essay a week in 2016*
This week I’ve been all up in my feelings. Tuesday was my last day of this summer I gifted myself to write and be with myself. I didn’t go to many events. And, I was productive as a mothafucka. I sat with my memoir and dug in. I wrote weekly essays for my Relentless Files challenge. I reinvented my Writing Our Lives Workshop (again). I sat under trees and counted stars and traced the lines on my palm. It was glorious and hard and I can’t wait to do it again next summer, because, yes, I’ve already decided I am absolutely doing it again.
Don’t get me wrong, yes, I missed teaching. I missed the glow on an emerging writer’s face when she knows without a doubt that she wrote a kick ass scene. But this writing I did was invigorating and challenging and so fuckin powerful, and it reminded me of the life I’m working towards where I write more than I teach and not the other way around. This is how dreams morph and evolve even further than we imagined. This is how we keep striving and growing and being our fly, relentless selves. Word.
I’ve been thinking a lot about permission. The permission we give ourselves and the permission we seek from others. I’ve had so many people ask me how it is I do this: live this life where I write and publish and teach and make a living doing what I love. Some people want a formula and cringe when I tell them there isn’t one. Others want me to give them permission.
I had a young writer tell me she wanted to finish her novel by the beginning of next year. I breathed hard and told her to take her time. She said she’s had this idea in her head for ten years. I said, with all the gentleness I could muster, that an idea is great but it’s the action that matters. I asked her how much she writes. I asked her what she was reading. I told her that it took Junot Diaz eight years to write The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the novel that garnered him a Pulitzer. I told her I’d been writing this memoir for more than ten years and it’s only this year that I’ve finally felt ready to finish it. I had to become the writer who could finish the book. I confess, I am afraid for her. I am afraid that she is setting herself up for disappointment. Finishing a book in three months is no easy feat. What happens if she doesn’t? Can she handle the weight of that disappointment? She pushed back and I let her. I get it. I’m the same way: when someone tells me I can’t do something, I say “watch me” and proceed to do it. Do I doubt that this young woman can do it? I’ve never seen her work. She took a one day workshop with me a few years ago and she stood in the back, didn’t raise her hand once, just took notes and watched. I don’t remember seeing her blink. She’s told me that she’s only written poetry. She’s told me she doesn’t write everyday and reads only sporadically.
I sent her the essay by Daniel José Older, “Writing Begins with Forgiveness.”
Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.
The writer didn’t respond but later she asked me how and when I was ready to write a synopsis for my novel. I told her that I had to write the novel first. I said: I may have had an idea of what I wanted the story to be but I had to leave room for the story to become what it wanted to become. I had to leave room for mystery. And when I did, I was amazed by what came out of me.
I wrote my first novel in a few weeks. I didn’t sleep. I barely ate. I only stopped to nurse my then months-old daughter, cook and fight with my then partner (my daughter’s father) who was jealous of everything that didn’t involve him. (That’s how I knew for sure that it was over: he was jealous of my writing and I knew not being a writer to assuage him wasn’t an option.) The thing is, I’d been writing that book in my journals for years though I didn’t know it then. That’s mystery. That’s process. One couldn’t have happened without the other. I had to read all the books and essays and articles I read. I had to write in my journal and dream of this writing life. I had to live the life I led. I had to do so much before I could birth that book. I had to become the writer who could finish that book. I had to give myself permission.
I left that conversation with that young writer feeling conflicted. I wanted to tell her yes, that she could do it (because if I could, she can), but the writer and teacher in me also wanted her to know that this writing life is not an easy one. That it requires a surrender that is shocking and can freeze you up if you don’t allow it.
I revisited that confrontation with surrender this summer when I reentered my memoir. I had this idea of what I wanted the book to be and spent weeks trying to shape it. I was frustrated when it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. I had to get out of my own way. I finally did. How? I had to remind myself that I’ve been writing this book for more than a decade. I had to remind myself of the surrender I permitted when I wrote my first book. I had to ask the memoir to show me its beauty. The minute I did, something shifted and the book started pouring out of me. The stories I’ve written a thousand and one times started coming together to create cohesive chapters. And, no, it’s not what I imagined, it’s better. So much better. And more powerful. And also more wrenching. It’s twisted me up in ways that I can’t really describe. Let’s just say, I ran to the woods often. I cried. I raged. And I have thanked the universe for therapy at least a dozen times a day.
I think of a quote my friend Erica Woods Tucker sent me a few weeks ago from a podcast Gary Shteyngart (author of the memoir Little Failure) did with Elizabeth Gilbert: “When you’re doing it right, writing memoir will feel both a relief and a trauma.”
And so because I know this, I wanted to be realistic with this young writer. I didn’t want to be discouraging but I didn’t want to lie to her either. And I was afraid of her waking up one day in January and beating herself up for not having finished the book she set out to finish. It’s so wonderful to have a story percolating in you for so long, and so devastating when you can’t get it down on paper.
We read a lot about different writers’ eccentric processes—but what about those crucial moments before we put pen to paper? For me, writing always begins with self-forgiveness. I don’t sit down and rush headlong into the blank page. I make coffee. I put on a song I like, I drink the coffee, listen to the song. I don’t write. Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns it being to a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation. I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it. My body unclenches; a new lightness takes over once that burden has floated off. There is room, now, for story, idea, life.
I put my hands on the keyboard and begin.
I hope that young writer can write that book she’s been aching to write. I hope if she doesn’t meet the deadline, that she forgives herself. And I hope that what I said to her didn’t discourage her. I hope she realizes that she doesn’t need mine or anyone’s permission, just her own.
And to all those out there imagining this creative life I want to say:
Don’t wait for someone to tell you you can do something big, that you can write or paint or draw or take pictures or whatever it is your heart desires. Do that shit. Do it relentlessly. Get up every day and work towards that goal. Write a page or a scene or develop a character. Put that paintbrush to canvas. Open that sketchbook you bought months ago. Do it today. This work takes time and patience. You can’t get up one day and say you’re going to run a marathon and expect to do that without keeling over. That’s 26.2 miles, homie. You will have to train. Art requires the same dedication and effort. If it’s that important, start. Poco a poco. Día a día.
And when you can’t get up every day and do it, forgive yourself. And when you don’t meet that self-imposed deadline, forgive yourself. And when people don’t support you or your work, insist you’re living a pipe dream, forgive them too. Then buckle down and do the work. Show them. Tell them: Watch me.
After that exchange with the writer, I started thinking about my sister who used to tell me every time we fought that I thought that I was better than her. She was the smart one when we were growing up. She was the one who was supposed to go places so when I was the one that was offered a four year scholarship to boarding school, she treated me like shit that entire summer before I left, ratted on me about my boyfriend (my first love who lived just down the block) and told me she celebrated for a week after I left. (I’d find out years later that she cried for weeks afterwards.) On the flipside, she also gave me a pair of her favorite shoes that I coveted—the square toed Mary Janes with the three thin straps that I was only able to wear once because they blistered my feet so bad.
She started saying it not long after I left but it got worse when she became a teen mom. Whenever we argued, which was often because that’s just always been our relationship, she’d say, accusingly, “you swear you’re better than me.” A few times I said, “That’s cuz I am.” I’m willing to look at my shit and see how I internalized that elitism I learned in boarding school and at Columbia. Then I learned in so many ways and so many instances, in microaggressions and not, that no matter what I did, to white America I’d always be just a spic from the ghetto. It didn’t matter what degrees I had or what job I had or what workshops I attended or what books and essays and short stories and poems I published. That was sobering as fuck, let me tell you.
I’ve been called pretentious. It’s been whispered that I swear I’m all that because I went to Columbia and have studied with some of the greatest writers of our time, at VONA and at Tin House and Acentos and so many workshops. It sucks when this happens to you. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If I hadn’t gone off to study, I’d be labeled a low life with no direction. When I did go off to make my way in the world and committed to this writing life, I was labeled this and that, all synonyms for conceited and full of herself.
We talk about superiority complexes but few want to talk about inferiority complexes and how people project their shit on you. I’ve been dealing with this for much of my life, so much so that for a long time I wouldn’t tell people where I went to school. It started with my sister and continued with other family and friends and people who weren’t my friends though they claimed to be. Yes, for a while I thought I was better because I did this and that, but here’s the thing: I know better now. Just because I’m educated and published, etc., doesn’t mean I think I’m better. In fact, I think if you set your mind to it and work hard and smart, you too can write your stories and publish your work and teach what you’ve been obsessed with for as long as you can remember. What this life requires is hard work and staying power. You have to be willing to fail and get up and try again. Talent won’t do it for you if you don’t have the grind work ethic. You have to study craft and read and write tons, and then read and write and study some more. The work to be better is never ending. You have to be relentless in your pursuit.
Let me be clear in no uncertain terms: demanding excellence of yourself and others isn’t pretentious. If you don’t see that, I don’t know what to tell you…
So, yes, you can do it too. Fuck yes you can. Pero, please, if you don’t or convince yourself that you can’t, don’t be mad at me for doing it. That’s your shit, not mine.
And that brings me to something else I’ve been thinking about this week: the friendships you lose when you’re grinding towards your dream.
They love and support you, call you sis, until they fear you’re shining brighter than them, until you reflect a mirror they can’t handle, until they see you doing what they aren’t… Then they label you problematic and whisper: “oh, she thinks she’s hot shit now.” That’s the thing about grinding relentlessly towards your dreams and earning the fruits of your labor—people fall by the wayside. Yes, I get the whole “you’re better off without them” platitudes but this isn’t about that. This is about the wackness and insecurity of people, and how lonely this road can be sometimes.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the sting of those losses. I love hard. I cherish my friendships. Yes, I know a lot of people (so many) but I don’t let people in easily (which is a topic for another time), so when I let you in, it’s hard for me to see you go, especially if I see you hate on me for doing what I do. Especially when we’ve shared stories over plates of baked chicken and glasses of bourbon and you know how hard I’ve worked and suffered. Yeah, that’s just wack and it hurts…but I guess it just be like that sometimes.