How Not to Disassociate

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how I view my body, how I engage with it, how I treat it. I’m guilty of forgetting about my body most of the time. I think this is very common for survivors of sexual abuse. We dissociate. Because the experience of actually being in your body is so uncomfortable, you remove yourself from it completely. It’s a useful skill in the midst of trauma, but it can become problematic if it becomes your default way of being.

You can end up ignoring a lot of things if you’re not present in your physical body–things like pain and sickness, which often leads to more pain and more sickness. Even basic states of being, like hunger or exhaustion. You just keep going on, for example, unaware that you haven’t eaten all day, in fact, you only notice when your hands are wildly shaking and you can’t type anymore.

Feelings are sourced in the body. I might feel fear as a widening pit in my stomach, or sadness as a heavy weight on my chest. Of course, if I’m divorced from my body, I don’t feel these things very well or at all. In fact, that’s probably the point: to be numb. But if you do this enough then over the years you grow up into someone who legitimately doesn’t know what they feel, much less how to express it. That’s what happened to me anyway.

Also, I wonder if there’s something basically comforting about staying in the mind, about not having to worry about the body.  Bodies get sick, they get old, they’re fallible, they remind us of how fragile and impermanent our existence is. For women especially, bodies can seem to be more of a liability than anything else. A target for violence, a public commodity (more on that in a later post!). So, there’s this theme of the body as a vulnerability.

Also, related, there’s the body as an oppositional force. I felt this way acutely during my pregnancy and the birth of my daughter. I treated my body like a defective machine. I felt like it had failed me, I felt betrayed. Or when I was recently diagnosed with hemochromatosis, a genetic disease where your body doesn’t properly process iron, and eventually it stores in your vital organs. Your body effectively poisons itself. Again, feelings of anger and betrayal. Must I always be at war with my body?  (Do I even have a right to be mad, after ignoring it for so long? Whose fault even is it? Why do these things happen in the first place? I don’t know!)

When I find myself resisting my physical experiences, I try to turn to my body with compassion.  I ask, what is it trying to tell me. There’s so much that our bodies do for us. Things that are beyond our comprehension, beyond what even science can explain. Mysterious things that keep us alive. So many things that have gone unappreciated by me for far too long. Maybe that sort of understanding and appreciation is a way forward towards, if nothing else, a more harmonious coexistence.

Relics from the Past: Ghosts and Haunted Houses

I just got a short story published in a local online journal, Hamlit. It’s actually a story I wrote several years ago, before my daughter was born and I still lived in DC. My life was a lot different back then.

I wrote it for a class on Ghost Stories that I took at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. It’s more of a thought experiment than a story. I re-imagined my honeymoon as if it were populated by ghosts.

The story is set in Saguenay, a beautifully remote part of Quebec where I went for my actual honeymoon. The amalgamation of cultures, the stark beauty of the fjords, the weird art installations (for more see: Wikipedia) all had an otherworldly feel to them.

This was written during a phase where I was particularly interested in domestic horror: haunted houses, invaded bodies, suffocating marriages. And especially, the idea of secret lives: Who lived in your house before you did? Who was your partner before you knew them? Who were your parents before you were born? Or even, what parts of you remain hidden from your own view?

I even started writing a NaNo novel around these sorts of themes: A pregnant woman finds a pair of children’s shoes buried in the fireplace of the old victorian home she and her husband recently moved into. She becomes convinced that the house is haunted, marred by some unspeakable event. Then I got pregnant and never finished it. 

Still today, the symbolism of the haunted house fascinates me. So do ghosts. Sometimes I feel like we live in a world made of ghosts. Trauma is a kind of ghost. Family secrets are a kind of ghost. Even my stories become ghosts.

Why I’m Writing a Romance Novel

I’ve been busy all November working on my NaNoWriMo project. I’ve decided to move away from what I normally write (a subgenre I like to call “Domestic Horror” or “Horror of the Everyday,” with its dark brooding imagery and existential questions, like how do we know anyone, really? How safe are we in our homes, with our loved ones?).

So, this November, I wrote a romance novel (!!!). Prior to this project, I hadn’t read any romances, at least not in the genre-specific way that a Romance novel typically suggests, so that was a challenge. But I binged read as much as I could, a sort of Romance 101. There are some really interesting things that the genre has going for it–at least as I see it, from an outsider’s perspective. It’s a rather reviled genre and one that is primarily populated by women writers and readers. Consequence? Ha. It’s also a genre that, historically (though I’m sure not wholly), has played fast and loose with problematic tropes, like rape, stalking, and general disregard for consent. Yet, many of the modern romances I’ve read over the past month seem to turn these tropes on their head, albeit in sometimes subtle ways. By being woman-centric, these stories offer a vital space for the female perspective, one that is routinely minimized or stamped out altogether in common discourse. 

I think it’s important to have space for women to explore topics like sexuality, fantasy, and societal roles and expectations. Today, romance as a genre runs the gamut across all spectrums, in terms of sexuality, gender roles, and graphic content. The genre is increasingly diversifying. Ultimately, the one consistent thing about romance is: these are books about relationships and sexuality. Two subjects I am very much interested in. I grew up in the age of the heyday of the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Internet pornography was exploding on the internet. I got my cues on what it means to be a woman from an unabashedly male lens. It’s limiting and it’s inauthentic. Could romance novels have offered a window into a different reality, a more nuanced and expansive one? I hope so.

National Novel Writing Month: Empowerment through Stories

[N.B.: This is a post I started writing in October and then promptly forgot about posting until now! Better late than never!]

It’s National Novel Writing Month! It’s my absolute favorite time of the year. It’s crazy, it’s hectic, but it’s such a mainstay of my writing life I think I’d be lost without it. This will be my 10th year as a NaNo Participant, and my first year as Municipal Liaison for the wonderful Skagit Valley region.

I don’t typically relish public leadership roles (social anxiety, nagging self doubt, existential dread, etc.), but I felt so strongly about NaNo that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. My first NaNo, back in 2007, came at a time of my life when everything was in flux: I had just graduated college and found my first full-time job in all its soul-sucking glory, started dating my first girlfriend and so came out as queer in an awkward, bumbling sort of way. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life and I felt out of control of it. I don’t even remember how I found out about NaNo (I think I saw a book in a bookstore by Chris Baty?), but it sounded like a great distraction and sufficiently impressed my girlfriend, so I was all in.

I didn’t make it to 50K that year (it would take about 5 years of trying to do so) but I found that I could write, I found the pleasure in telling a story. I wrote a sci-fi novel about a lowly office assistant who has an Alice-in-Wonderland-type journey to another planet where she discovers her true powers. It was a really meaningful story for me, about the powerless finding power, about hope in darkness, about the suffocation of roles and binaries and how to free yourself from that. Most of all, the actual act of writing gave me hope and purpose. I had something meaningful to say and I was saying it. That’s a kind of power I didn’t know I had access to.

And I was hooked. Ten years later and I haven’t regretted a single hectic November. And it’s wild to me that I’m now an ML and my job is to cheer on other novelists, people who love what I love and value what I value: personal narratives, freedom of expression, stories of all kinds. For me, it’s never been about the word count, it’s always been about the community. Through our stories, we reach out to others and share the deep, undiscovered parts of ourselves.

My poetry in fws: a journal of literature and art

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.

Antidote for Rejection

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.

How to Write Well

What helps you to write well? Strong coffee? A concise outline? The perfect background music?

Dig deeper.

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.

Inspiration: Writing as a Spiritual Practice

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.

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 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.

-Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Finding the Words: Where Fact and Fiction Meet

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.