Last week I was reading an article in Poets & Writers’ May/June 2019 issue–which surprised me to receive in the mail considering I thought my subscription had lapsed–when I came across a passage in poet Camille T. Dungy’s essay “Say Yes to Yourself” that resonated with my struggling creative practice:
You have to make time to write. No one else but you can give you that time, and it’s possible you will have to go to some lengths to access the time and take it. When you find time, protect it. Be aware of the things that will distract you from your mission and figure out how to prevent those distractions.
It is 12:17 a.m. on a quiet Thursday morning in my house. Edith, the cat, is curled up on my baby blue cami and heather gray yoga pants with the hole in the left thigh. When I flip the page of the magazine to scan the other quotes she mewls irritably, glancing backward in my direction over her shoulder in offense. So I move the basketful of last Saturday’s laundry–towels and rags and undergarments and socks–from my chair to the floor beside my desk, and plug in my computer. Of course now she has moved to sit on the desk beside me and watches as my fingers dance across the keyboard. We are both curious, I think, where this is going. I don’t generally write this late. I don’t generally write at all these days. But I want to write something, even if it means waking up with an aggressive headache in the morning from lack of sleep.
There are a lot of reasons I haven’t been writing lately–the most prominent being that I don’t want to live a very public online life anymore, which is in complete contrast to my desire to write online, publicly, as a means to nurture creative community. It is also in contrast with my desire to write as a means of communicating myself in ways that aren’t regularly communicated. I often wonder how a person can want to be known so badly without doing the work of being known, but I think that is a more common dilemma than we realize in ourselves and of the people around us. And not everyone discovers writing as their mode of expression, or anything creative. Some of us just fester in our emotional discomfort without any kind of release, or all the wrong ones. It’s why I have to be careful with alcohol. In fact, I had a glass of wine at dinner with friends yesterday evening and now I can’t sleep, which is how I found myself writing past midnight, shivering under my fan, and now looking around my bedroom in search of my vanished cat.
It occurs to me in writing this, however, just how long it takes me to get to an honest enough place to write something worth reading. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on an essay about writing for a newsletter I had considered starting. It was readable, but there was something lacking in it. Something that didn’t give me the kind of motivation to really commit to the idea. Not that what I’m writing, and will momentarily publish, is better writing, or even good writing. It’s not. I am longwinded and wordy. I cram my paragraphs with prepositions and run-on sentences and justifiers and the like. Imagine diagramming this essay… My God. But it’s not about the quality of the writing, what I’m doing tonight. It’s about the act. It’s about knowing how terrible I’ll feel getting ready for work in the morning and all throughout the day because I needed a mental and emotional reprieve. It’s about giving myself permission to alleviate these pressures, even when the timing is inconvenient.
The trouble I face most of the time is in not knowing what to write. Do I want to be a poet, a novelist, a short storyist, a culture writer, a film critic? Do I want to write personal essays? Do I want to edit them? I’m a terrible entrepreneur. I’ve quit almost everything I’ve tried to create on my own, and I don’t know if that’s because I lack vision or I just don’t know how to organize it. Yesterday I was at a luncheon for community development where the speaker postulated that intention is not enough, that our intention has to reflect our reality and vice versa. I’m not doing it justice, I know, but he conveyed the idea very eloquently and it has been sitting with me all day. One of the things he discussed with us was the students at his high school that he used to discipline, thinking that discipline was synonymous with punishment. But over time he realized that hurt countered with more hurt did not solve the problem. It only generated more pain. And so their suspension hall became more of a recuperative lounge where the kids were allowed the space of a comfortable and inviting room to understand themselves through the pain they’d caused, how they could heal that pain in themselves so as not to inflict it on others.
Writing this essay has made me understand how I’ve been punishing myself, that I’ve been practicing the wrong side of discipline. I’ve refused myself the chance to explore all of this hurt and why it might be keeping me from creating. Especially when, in doing so, I feel a kind of spiritual release, something that brings me back toward God (another entity I’ve been blocking from my life). It reminds of something I heard on the Becoming Wise podcast with Naomi Shihab Nye:
Very rarely do you hear anyone say they write things down and feel worse. They always say, “I wrote things down. This isn’t quite finished. I need to work on it.” But they agree that it helped them sort of see their experience, see what they were living. That’s definitely a gift of writing that is above and beyond any sort of vocational — how much somebody publishes. It’s an act that helps you, preserves you, energizes you in the very doing of it.
So I’ve been thinking…maybe writing openly, publicly, is something I can do to yes, gain community; and yes, communicate myself better; and yes, recharge my writing practice. It is a terrifying thought. I’ve tried for a long time now–months, and maybe even years–to convince myself that I can live without writing, that I don’t need to communicate myself as a writer to anyone, that I can work at my desk job and feel completely and utterly fine and whole. But then I’ll find myself crying on the toilet because I’ve been neglecting all of the real problems. I think the bigger concern is putting myself out there and not being understood by friends/family/colleagues/people I don’t even know, and not going anywhere with my writing and why does she feel the need to write a blog anyway, is this 2007? Which is just to say that I’m afraid of what people will think. And I’m afraid of feeling badly about myself because of it. I’m afraid that people will think I need a therapist and not a blog, though there isn’t anything wrong with needing or healing from either. Wasn’t it writing a blog that John Watson’s therapist prescribed to him in Sherlock?
I rest my case.