The Dead Will Bury Their Own, Don’t Worry

Happy October! It’s my favorite season, and I wanted to write about something timely. Here in the Pacific Northwest, this is when we see spiders everywhere. In my house, there’s always a week or two when the giant house spiders emerge from wherever the hell, wandering around presumably in search of a mate. They come out of the woodwork. I’m always really edgy during that time.

I’m both fascinated and frightened by spiders.

I recognize my fear as somewhat overblown and irrational. Still it persists. And so it was a strange turn of events when, a few weeks ago, it dawned on me: I had become accustomed to, even fond of, one particular spider that had taken up residence outside my bedroom window.

I had just started rewriting my novel-in-progress, just recommitted to my daily writing schedule. So every morning, I’d wake up and see her and I’d watch her as I struggled to think of a natural line of dialogue, the perfect word, etc. I’d think about what her life must be like: doing the same thing each day, sitting on the same web in the same place, just waiting for food, just living. I’d think about how her life wasn’t too different from mine. Then, one day I woke up and she was gone. It had been very windy and stormy that night and I was sure she had just blown away. And I was inexplicably disappointed. That night she came back (I’ve since learned that orb weavers eat their web and rebuild it daily). It felt like a blessing.

Every day, I watch her weave her web and she reminds me that we are all the center of our own worlds. I watch her move in the dark and it reminds me of deep creativity and of moving into the dark and inaccessible corners of my own life. Yesterday, I watched her immobilize a yellow jacket. Her large body moved with a vicious, devastating speed. Within seconds she had wrapped the wasp in silk and was dragging its heavy body back to the center of the web. As she was eating it, I couldn’t look away. It was menacing, disquieting, vaguely disgusting. It reminds me of death.

It reminds me of one of my favorite James Wright poems, “The Journey.” It’s about a spider, and death, and, by association, life. It ends:

Many men
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found   
What I found there, the heart of the light   
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing   
On filaments themselves falling. The secret
Of this journey is to let the wind   
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely   
Will bury their own, don’t worry.

Intently, I watch this spider step lightly, lightly through her web. Her long limbs thrum the threads and they vibrate wildly. A beautiful, brutal display. Even behind a pane of glass, I won’t get too close. I don’t quite have the stomach for it, not yet. Still, it’s a kind of love, isn’t it?

Though love can be scarcely imaginable Hell,
By God, it is not a lie.

James Wright, “The Art of Fugue: A Prayer”

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.

Solitude and Fear

This weekend, I went on a one-woman writer’s retreat. There’s a cabin on Whidbey Island that I found listed on Airbnb a few years ago. It’s a single-occupancy dwelling nestled in the woods, complete with a strong wifi signal and three thesauruses. It’s designed specifically for writers. I bookmarked it and periodically came back to it, thinking, one day, I would go there.  Not today, though. Not this month.

I told myself it was because of my toddler. Wouldn’t it be cruel to leave her behind for three whole days? How could I explain my absence to her?  It seemed a luxury I couldn’t afford. But truthfully: I was afraid. I was afraid of being alone, for vast stretches of time. I thought I might die of boredom, or of missing my daughter. More realistically, I thought I might have a mental breakdown being alone with my thoughts. The more I thought about it, the more I began to dread the specter of my own company. So I avoided it for many months.

My husband kept bringing it up, every so often, but I always had a good reason why now wasn’t a good time. Eventually, my sister told me I’d be crazy to pass up an opportunity like that. Of course, she was right. It was a little counterproductive, me standing in my own way. So, I booked it, even though the decision itself was made with much trepidation. Even, at times, regret. But the cabin had a very strict no refund policy, and so it was decided.

I cooked three day’s worth of food ahead of time and braced myself for solitude. If I was going to do this, I was really going to do it.  I didn’t want any distractions. (I didn’t even pack wine.) Instead, I packed several notebooks and several more books. I wanted to brainstorm my next writing project, journal, and read. Maybe do some yoga and meditation. And I did all those things. But mostly, I just sat around and thought.

I thought a lot about fear and how difficult it can be to express when you are afraid. It feels somehow humiliating, an infantilizing admission. I also felt a bit unreasonable in my fear, like I didn’t deserve the opportunity if I was only going to be angsty about it. (Funny how the mental admonitions of adult-me sound like echoes of emotionally neglectful parents.) Of course, it’s not patently unreasonable to be unnerved at spending three nights alone in an unfamiliar cabin in the woods, away from everyone you know, without so much as a car or reliable phone service.

Regardless.

I was able to parse through my thought processes and really analyze the fear that I hold inside of me. The fear wasn’t the problem so much as the denial of it was. The avoidance, the minimalizing. That’s what people have been doing to me my whole life, but it’s weirdly terrifying to realize that I do it to myself.

But fear is so human. When we avoid our fear, when we attempt to will it out of existence, we only succeed in diminishing our own humanness.

There are a lot of things I fear, many of them I don’t even think I can acknowledge properly. Some of these feelings have been forced down for so long that I no longer recognize them for what they are. It’s a long process to unravel the knotty threads that kink and bind your perception. Solitude helps. Facing yourself–your true, human form–honestly and gently, is perhaps the best antidote for fear.