Happy late October! It’s almost Halloween and that means it’s almost my favorite month of the year (More on that in the next post…)
In the meantime, I’ve got some exciting news. Two of my poems, Untitled and Salome, have been published by Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press in fws: a journal of literature and art. View issue 2 here! All of the pieces in this issue are on the theme of skin. I am so proud to be a part of such a wonderful publication alongside many talented artists and poets. Please check it out.
This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart right now. If you write, and you want other people to read what you write, then you know about rejection. The deflating feeling of inadequacy, of lack, of not being good enough.
It’s funny that a profession overwhelmingly comprised of sensitive introverts requires them to put themselves out there in such a deeply personal way. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve stopped pandering–so much–to my ego. It’s not that I don’t care if I get published or that it doesn’t hurt to get those formulaic thanks but no thanks letters back from lit mags–I do, and it does. It’s just that I’ve decided I’ve got to have faith in myself, and faith in the transformative powers of the writing process. The rest will come, or it won’t.
Believe me, I’d love the outside affirmation. I’d love the recognition, the accolades, but I also know from hard-won experience that those things are insubstantial. There’s a Buddhist saying, “Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind. To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.” Success and rejection are just two sides of the same coin. If you are unmoored and grasping, they’re both problematic. The praise itself doesn’t make your work valuable. And in fact, it just sets up further expectations and opportunities for self-doubt. Do I deserve this? Am I a fraud?
Further, I think as writers we would be better served by reframing our personal stances on success and failure. Consider: It’s not you against the world. We writers are all in this together. Instead of stalling over rejections, let’s work towards creating a community with other writers, supporting them in spite of their own rejections, and (trying) not to be envious in the face of their successes. A generous spirit is expansive, creative, transformative. It’s something to work towards because that’s where the magic happens.
What helps you to write well? Strong coffee? A concise outline? The perfect background music?
One often overlooked component to good writing is safety. In order to write well, you need to feel safe. You need to feel free to express yourself. Otherwise, your mind clenches, and your so-called rational mind takes control. You worry about what people will think of your writing, of you. You worry still: Is this any good? Am I wasting my time?
Nothing will shut you up faster than that.
What you want for your writing is unfettered authenticity. You want your unique, uninhibited self to shine through. In order to do that, you need to feel safe. But how do you feel safe? How do you overcome your fears, of failure or rejection or whatever it is that keeps you from writing what you really want to write?
This is an elusive practice, and there are no clear-cut answers. But I’ve found one technique in an unexpected place: yoga. What started out for me as a purely physical exercise has become a mainstay of my writing practice. It is grounding. It is playful. It is about discovery and deep self-acceptance. It is about embracing mystery. It’s about quieting all those nagging voices that tell you you are wasting your time, to give up, to go to law school and make sure your life actually amounts to something.
Yoga, at its philosophical core, is about uniting who you think you are with who you actually are. Starting a yoga session is a lot like sitting down to the blank page. You are wrestling with your mind, with its endless possibilities both good and bad, with your potential. You discover what you are capable of. Ultimately, it teaches you to trust yourself. And this trust is where safety lies.
What inspires you to write? Why do you do it? Finding and tapping into your larger purpose can be extraordinarily motivating. Many great writers have spoken about the writer’s responsibility to ease suffering and not contribute to it. That’s a powerful directive.
A good story shows us that we can overcome our suffering, transcend it, and maybe even turn it into something meaningful. This explains my penchant as a kid for female protagonists who used their imagination to overcome their demons and find the latent power within themselves. In literary fiction maybe the overcoming takes on a more metaphorical dimension, but I think it’s still true.
Another related point is about faith. Writers need to cultivate faith: in themselves and in the writing process. Especially with a difficult or long story, like a novel, it’s often hard to see the way forward, at least in the beginning. It’s a vast undertaking. It feels like a stab in the dark. Still, you sit down to write with the blind hope that at some point it’ll take shape. If the going gets rough, you might blame writer’s block, the writing gods, your muse. There’s this persistent notion of the fickled muse, the idea that writers can get lucky or that their genius is somehow fleeting. Maybe that’s a nice thought because then you aren’t really responsible for what you do or don’t accomplish.
I don’t mean to diminish the role of mystery in writing. I think it is very mysterious. I also think that good writing taps into something beyond yourself. Beyond, but not outside. And, if you look at writing as a practice–maybe even an act of devotion– I think that gets closer to the truth. The practice of writing is an act of faith. The words on the page are your offering.
I Celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same, I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance, Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten, I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard, Nature without check with original energy.
One thing I’ve noticed recently is that I don’t always know what I feel. I may feel it fully, but my throat closes in on itself when I try to name the feeling. This happened to me all the time as a kid. Sometimes–and it can be years after the fact–I’ll be reading something and come across a word describing someone else’s experience, and it’ll hit me like a slap in the face. Oh, that’s the word for it.
I remember reading a book last year in which the author detailed a woman’s response to her husband leaving her for their teenaged babysitter. She felt humiliated. That’s never a word I had used or thought to use to describe myself, but I realized then that’s how I’ve felt so many times. Before, I might have said I was “embarrassed” or “anxious,” but that’s not quite right. Those words lacked, glossing over the full terror of the experience and the deep, abiding shame that lingers long after the original event has faded.
As terribly as the feeling is, I’m glad to have that word to hold on to. To give meaning to what might otherwise seem a futile experience in powerlessness. Still, even now, I feel the sting of rebuke: Can I actually talk about this? Can I bear it? Can others? I think maybe that’s why these words, true meaningful words, evaded me for as long as they did. They are almost, it seems, unspeakable when applied to the self and everyday lived experiences, especially the domestic. No one wants to hear about how bad you felt, especially not at the hands of those who were supposed to protect you. Instead, you get over it. Move on. Become resilient. But there’s a fine line between moving on and denial, which only serves to cement the shame in your psyche.
I read an article recently about a Norweigian novelist. She wrote a fictional novel about a woman who was abused by her father as a child. However, the novel so conspicuously paralleled her own life that it has led many people to believe it is autobiographical. And she’s not the first writer to (allegedly) fuse fiction and fact. I think most writers do this to some extent. And I can certainly understand how trauma can seem a better fit for fiction. Not just for the consumption of the general public, but also for one’s own sake. Maybe some distance is helpful to cut beyond the culture of silence, of “just move on.” Hopefully, the fiction becomes the catalyst for that forward movement. The first step is simple: Find the right word.