Writing trouble; Trouble writing

Finding it hard to write. To focus and shake down an idea for the insights it offers.

That’s a very extractive take on a practice that ideally seeks to be generative. Yet, here we are. Here I am.

Photo by Annika Thierfeld on Pexels.com

I don’t write because anyone has asked me to. I write to let go of things, to exhale my concerns or at least breathe through them. I would love to believe that my writing has nothing to do with sales. But social capital is capital; a currency. Writing can be a way to build social capital which leads to other opportunities to expand reach and influence. Appearing publicly means participating in a specific economy of attention, of favor, of visibility. When I write publicly – when I blog, tweet, newsletter – I am negotiating attention, favor and visibility. I am both spending and accruing social capital.

I listen to other writers. I hear their wisdom, envy their capacity to say so many things I wish I could say, too. Colson Whitehead says we should write the things that scare us the most which is hard. But what’s the point of doing it if it’s going to be easy? he adds. I am a scaredy cat writer. It’s not that I’m harboring great secrets that I dare not tell but I know, for now, pretty well, what I’m not gonna do. Remember that social capital? Part of playing the game is limiting the risk of losing that capital. Reducing the risk of falling out of favor. Hedging against the danger of disappearing or being disappeared.

Writing as trouble. Writing to trouble. I do these things but usually so politely. I choose my words carefully, resisting the impulse to offend. “I” and “we” are my preferred pronouns. Call it a humility strategy. Never wanting to get “too big for my britches” I stay contained, restrained, palatable. If I hold stock in anything, my portfolio runs deep in respectability. My good girl legacy remains in tact. Even if social capital is contingent, I suppose I came to this particular marketplace with a certain endowment comprised of an elite educational pedigree and a rich collection of professional connections. I’m a conservative investor. I imagine I’m playing the long game.

And we have to ask for what? What is this capitalist rumination on a practice at once globally irrelevant, yet potentially contextually meaningful? Illusions exist. Which is to say, yes, I have illusions, perhaps like every other person who writes, who creates, who persists in showing up. I have the illusion that some words matter. I have the illusion that my words can matter sometimes to some people. Sometimes I have the illusion that writing matters. I have the illusion that my writing matters.

How do we engage in a capitalist framework based on scarcity, extraction and fear and still expect to create beauty for ourselves and those we love? How do we resist the deadly pull to produce and become content (I hate that word) in an economy that tells us we’re only as valuable as our last big click generator? Even as I quietly and civilly rage against the machine, it’s impossible not to notice how it eats me and feeds me back to myself. It’s an ugly process made to look sleek and appealing. It’s a wildly efficient robbery; always underway where everyone’s a perpetrator and witness at the same time. We stay busy. We stay busied.

Writing trouble, writing trouble; trouble writing, trouble writing. Where is the emphasis? What seems to be the trouble? The trouble is neither paucity nor order of words; trouble defines the context into which the words are released. The trouble is the world we inhabit. The trouble is in the world we’ve created. The trouble is in us. The trouble is us. We are the trouble. The writing speaks of trouble. The writing shows the trouble. Trouble shapes the writing. The writing consumes trouble. Trouble consumes the writing. Writing made of trouble. Writing made for trouble. Writing trouble is not the same as trouble writing. Troubling trouble while writing writing, we create an illusion. Maybe it matters. Trouble writing no longer an illusion but a fact.

Repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating. Repetition may not save us. Repetition, though, shows us patterns. Repetition can help us see and then unsee. Help us hear and then unhear. Repetition can take us to clarity. Kicking and screaming, if necessary. Repetition got patience. Repetition can hold the note. Repetition will wait you out. Repetition been down this road before. Repetition ain’t afraid of you. Repetition knows its purpose. Repetition never forgets. Repetition is a song that keeps singing. Repetition is a beat that keeps beating. Repetition is a breath that keeps breathing. Repetition is neither the beginning or the end. Repetition keeps going. Sometimes we need to follow.

Writing here, now, becomes a release valve. A relief release. A loosening of the shoulders, an unclenching of the jaw. I am not free but at ease. It’s a start, a return, a diversion, a turn, an entry, a temporary arrival.

Welcome.

The Writing Retreat

I did and I didn’t do/go on/ experience a writing retreat. In the most basic sense I took a solo vacation. Booked a package including flights, transfer, hotel stay with meals. 6 nights, no complications. I brought my laptop, a stack of books, 2 notebooks, a couple of good pens. For this cordoned off period I enjoyed two great resources I often lack: time and opportunity.

Indeed, I read generously, journaled frequently, scratched meaningfully at two or three ongoing projects with actual deadlines. I also spent time in the sun; took naps, walks and a handful of photographs. I got my hair braided! Rather than explore the surrounding territories, I remained within a few kilometers of my hotel, exploited the convenience of requiring little extra diversion beyond my own imagination and the steady beat of waves against the beach.

Sun, sea, horizon. Image: Nadine Aish-Longden via Unsplash

About a week before I booked the trip, I downloaded directions for a DIY Writing Retreat. It’s designed to help writers of any kind create the conditions that allow them to achieve some writing goals. As a tool, it is well thought-out, encouraging and accessible. While I didn’t follow the steps, per se, I can say at the end of my stay, that writing happened. I met some goals which I hesitated to articulate in advance. I’ve decided I can leave here with a little feather in my writing cap.

But there’s more. Of course, there’s more.

I didn’t come here expressly to write. I mean, this was my first vacation abroad in two years. While not the first time going solo, this trip held a different character – an unspoken potential for adventure, perhaps. Or a weird extra acknowledgement of my recent status as a single single; fully unattached and at liberty. That said, what I actually did was read, write and stroll around. I did not talk to anyone besides service personnel. I enjoyed each and every meal at a small table with good food and a book. I went to the bar maybe twice, again with a book. I realize that I don’t have much faith in random encounters. And with time and opportunity, my choice to engage with authors on the page rather than surrounding tourists can hardly come as a surprise. I have no regrets.

I also spent huge blocks of time in my own head which is where a lot of my writing still resides. Part of recognizing the week’s outcomes rests on accounting for all that remains unaccounted for. All the thoughts, fragments, ideas that didn’t get written down does not mean that they don’t exist. It might be a passage I underlined while reading. An image that comes to mind while I’m observing people at the beach. The way my scalp itches two days after having these tight cornrows with extensions put in. My language is varied and multifaceted. My writing is more than words on various pages.

And here is where the retreat feels palpable. The retreat I took was from expectations of what one is to do on vacation. I took a retreat from my day-to-day in order to view it more clearly. What I found out is that I’m still mourning a loss that has accumulated slowly and steadily over years. Behold, an ambiguous grief that is heavy but lacks clear dimensions or handles! I took a retreat from my usual markers of productivity. I worked on some stuff but I found myself in a very forgiving state. Not too pressed about grasping at oddly shaped ideals. I let whatever out onto the page or screen knowing that it might all change again and be fine. I retreated from the people in my immediate vicinity and found fellowship with the characters who genuinely interested me in my books or through the screen.

My day job is deeply social, communication-intense and physically demanding. Only now, a week out of the routines that shape my normal workdays can I appreciate how urgent my need for retreat actually was. I needed this time to retreat into myself.

One of the outcomes is the chance to rewrite my own stories.

“As the relationships I crave become more and more difficult to find, as the consistency I need from other people seems almost impossible, the one thing with which I have a consistent relationship is my writing. So it’s hard to take any part of that away.”

Mattilda Berstein Sycamore, The Freezer Door, p. 250

Enough said.


*In case you’re wondering which books I brought along…

I arrived with about 150 pages left of The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. I continued with MBS and The Freezer Door which I had also begun before leaving home. Next up was Zora Neal Hurston’s Baracoon and I’m drawing out the final chapters of A Separation by Katie Kitamura which will likely blow my mind before I get on the return flight in the early morning hours. To my surprise, I actually cut it pretty close. I almost ran out. Oh, yeah, I also started Jessie Daniel’s Nice White Ladies on my laptop, so there’s that.

Writing On Your Own Terms Of Endearment (an ode)

A pile of writing. Photo by edifiedlistener.

If you’re a writer, and even if you don’t call yourself that, you know how it happens. One day you hear a voice saying all the things you needed to hear in the just right tone and tempo and you suddenly commit. All further work will be dedicated to emulating this new voice from what appears to be, surely must be, the heavens. You have a model. Now you will find your way because someone else is holding a flashlight over the path you think you’d like to follow. Maybe you’re also like a new puppy: super eager, begging for treats, sniffing and test chewing everything you can find. Everything is interesting and when you sleep, you sleep deeply, curled up on the floor, so content that you have found your purpose.

Maybe that’s going too far. Maybe you’re not a puppy, per se, but a temporary hyper enthusiast. You are so hungry for changing the things you’ve been doing. You crave being done with the things you’ve been doing. But you still can’t stop because then no one would be able to find you. You fear getting lost in the shuffle, becoming unrecognizable. It’s like when your favorite running shoe is discontinued, you mourn the loss. Whatever comes after is never as good as the 33 previous pairs you had. So, to stop doing what you’re doing would mean to discontinue your series. To phase out that long line of production. You really want change, but not into oblivion.

So here comes this voice, this singular voice, that seems to say, “Hey! Relax! Breathe. Write or don’t write. Walk or run. Be who you are. Breathe again. Now try writing.”

The message feels prophetic even if it’s just a talk on a podcast that you listened to on a series of devices. You feel singled out. You feel heard although you never uttered a word. It feels as if this person, this author you had never heard of before, sat right down across from you and said, “Honey, What you’ve been doing is what you’ve been doing and it matters, and it’s worthy and it’s exactly what I mean when I say we should all be writing on our own terms.” That’s what it feels like and so you listen to this voice over and over again telling you, you’ve been on the right path all along. “Most great writers never get published.” And even if that’s not your primary concern (neither being a great writer, nor getting published), it still feels healing to hear it at the right time from the right direction.

You think to yourself about the mountains of writing you will leave in your wake. A never ending coming to terms with being and doing. Writing, writing, writing. The outlet, the release, the correspondence, the container, the magic hat, the timepiece, the storage – all this writing – multipurpose, year-round, all-season habit that finds no end.

What you know about your own writing could fill a book. And here comes this voice that reminds you: we who write are never in the singular. We exist in conversation with each other, in conversation with language, in conversation with conversation even if we can barely stand it to hear that word again because it seems to stand for everything. Yet here we are saying that word to mean that we are talking to each other, we are witnessing and creating exchanges, we are operating in what amounts to the opposite of a vacuum. What’s the word for that? Not every gathering or collection of people, things, voices creates a community. At any rate, we exist in the not-vacuum and together (and apart) we create what we create: messes and havoc, beauty and symphony, struggle and breakthrough, lapses, gaps and gasps. No list is ever exhaustive which is part of what makes them so fun to write. Make a list. Exhaust yourself. That is writing, too.

Of course, you’re thinking too about joy. Why can’t we talk more about joy? We all have more than enough responsibility. So who’s going to advocate for joy? You will and yes, because the voice also does this. The voice talks about making space for sentences to breathe. The voice talks about all of us writing together in a single document and seeing what would emerge, all the mysteries and magic and magnificence that might surprise and scare us at the same time. The ridiculous pile of energy we would produce. It wouldn’t necessarily be all joy, nor all pain, but it would be space – for all of us to be in and breathe.

And sometimes to be in space where you can breathe is all the joy you need for a moment.

Now you’ve written this thing which doesn’t care about what it is so much as it is relieved to have spoken. Finally. To have said the things that have been swirling around and put them down on a page – this is a fantastic relief! You don’t have to know exactly where you go from here. You can go wherever you want, actually. You can write wherever you need to go. That’s the beauty of this thing; this occupation that is not your occupation. You belong to each other. You are your own symbiotic not-vacuum in a world full of other not-vacuums.

Audio version:

Deep gratitude to Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for her revelatory talk “Writing On Your Own Terms” via Tin House Live and host, David Naimon.

Saying Some Things/Hearing Some Things

Two voices: a call and a response. Speaking and listening; hearing and being heard: A process.

Saying Some Things

I’ve been saying some things. Some are true. Some are wishes. Some are exhales. Some are just so damn necessary. I’ve been saying some things that keep me up at night, that make me wonder, fret, and suck my teeth. I’ve been saying some things I’ve been meaning to let out. I’ve been saying the things that might be hard to hear but I say it nicely in my white lady voice and it turns out okay. I’ve been saying some things that will tell you that I’m a little old and kinda tired and brave in a smoldering kind of way. I’ve been saying some things that matter. Not just to me but to other folks too. I’ve been saying some things and I guess I’ll just keep on.

Hearing Some Things

I’ve been hearing some things. Some are real. Some are dreams. Some are gasps. Some are silent screams for being. I’ve been hearing some things that keep me up at night, that make me question, fumble, and grind my teeth. I’ve been hearing some things that have burst whiteness. I’ve been hearing some things and responding without saying it nicely in my white lady voice and it didn’t turn out okay for me, but it’s okay.. I’ve been hearing some things that will tell you that I’m new at this and kinda exhausted even though I’ve just begun. I’ve been hearing some things that matter. Not just to me, but to my students, the future. I’ve been hearing some things and I guess I’ll just need to do more.

Saying Some Things first appeared on Sherri’s Slice of Life Project and Hearing Some Things was shared by Melanie White in response. She was kind enough to allow me to post it here.

On summer reading

A summer’s worth of reading

It’s summer and I’m finding more time and space to read. But more than that, I am experiencing my reading as immersive, as feelings-laden. I’m reading for more than pleasure. I’m reading to participate in life from a variety of vantage points while also testing some theories within. I am reading myself back to life. Over and over again. It’s wild.

Perhaps now you’re curious about the what. What is she reading that has got her waxing philosophical? I could offer you a list: title after title with succinct summaries to entice you to do the same. But I’m not feeling that. I recently stumbled upon an insight about writing: mostly I’m writing for my edification, not yours necessarily. I write to scribble myself clear from one end of my thinking to another. Putting words and thoughts on the page are relics of me moving (literally) through my processing. Reading, as I’m experiencing it now, falls along similar lines: I’m reading to take myself someplace else; traveling with varied levels of attending baggage. For fiction where the characters seem farthest removed from my contexts, I carry barely anything. I’m a curious spectator stepping lightly with few sensitivities of possible calamity. In stories closer to what I have known and seen, I can feel my backpack of anxieties bearing down. For whatever I’m reading these days I have a rare openness and vulnerability. I have enough bandwidth.

Meanwhile, I’m undertaking a side project of perusing my journals of the last decades, culling particular insights and events. These are not particularly easy reads. A lot of it feels redundant, whiny, tiresome. Reading my way through these pages I am easily impatient with my minor and major sufferings. It’s no fun being reminded of my naiveté; of difficult feelings in difficult relationships. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable archive of writing energy and stamina. It offers some fairly strong case studies in adult development. For better or worse these hundreds of entries have provided both urgent and not-so-urgent self-sustaining spaces for me to flop, writhe, celebrate and sigh over time. I’m grateful they exist.

#YALit has really boosted my enthusiasm for fiction.

Against this backdrop I’ve been able to dive into others’ books with astounding abandon. Young adult literature has featured strongly: Darius The Great Is Not Okay, When You Were Everything and Sanctuary have all proven very rich in their character development and plot lines. My teen’s middle school summer read, Look Both Ways, was a charming diversion I enjoyed. A friend sent me Theory by Dionne Brand which I devoured in the space of a few days. Pew by Catherine Lacey was nearly as unsettling as Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Of course, I dropped whatever I was doing to read How The Word Is Passed as soon as it arrived in my mailbox. At the beginning of the summer I read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us which prompted me to purchase Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which is up soon. Taken together, these books have consistently brought identity to the fore. While several characters are sorting out their particular responses to “who am I? Who are you? and/or What are we?” in most of these reads “What is society telling me/you/us to be?” turns out to be more pressing in several ways. Negotiating between who we want to be and who else has a say in what we may or may not get to choose about our identities and positions is an ever present struggle.

Which brings me back to my journals. Which brings me back to myself and all the inadequacies that implies. My joy in summer reading is the opportunities I have to wander away from myself, to leave some of my baggage unattended with the knowledge that these excursions also act as stepping stones towards perhaps new and unexpected insights. The point is that I leave and return. I go away and come back. I observe others, I observe myself. In the process I learn, I parse, I reason, I feel. I read, I keep writing.

Several years’ worth of journals.

All photos: © S. Spelic

Journal Leaks

Brown skinned left hand with gold wedding band lower left corner rests on bottom edge of two notebooks/journals. Top journal has Klimt painting of women angels dressed in gold. Brown leather journal underneath.
A Piece of Scarf

I've made you a piece of scarf.

Yes, a piece of scarf.
It's blue and bluish in a
crisscross kind of pattern I've just learned
called a basket weave.
Except it's not a basket
and I didn't weave it.

It's a piece of scarf.
Quite striking actually,
interesting at the very least.

And yes, I suppose it is only the very least
a piece of scarf you can never wear,
you can never wrap around your neck
or drape over your shoulders.
It's only a piece, mind you.

A piece of scarf
for you, though
a token of my affection
a hint of warmth and coziness
that I can't quite deliver in full.

A piece of scarf that is visible
in its incompletion,
whose potential shows up
in thousands of missing stitches.   

(November 2017)

    
Es hilft nichts
  sagt sie
Da ist nichts zu machen
   sagt er
Das wird nichts mehr
   sagen sie

Nichts.
ist nichts
wird nichts
hilft nichts

Eben. 

(Februar 2018)



I amI might be
a routinea regret
a habita challenge
a dutya mess
an appeasementa hassle
a compromisea detriment
a reality checka deal breaker
a mismatchan assignment
an Americana mistake
a riskan exhaustion
a volatilitya strain
an accusationan impossibility
a dismissala reminder
an exclusiona dread
an expensea warning
a lossa vulnerability
a gaina chore
an ambivalencean anger
a reasona resentment
an excusea departure
a disappointmentan absence
a draga damage
a mixed baga cost
Identity calculus

(November 2020)

3 Unfinished Coming Home/After Work Poems

The Wrong Feelings

If I were looking for a title I might choose The Wrong Feelings. The wrong feelings, you know,

one of these feelings is not like the others…

Or can you see which feeling does not belong?

Child’s play essentially / so easy to spot because

of course THEY ARE THE WRONG FEELINGS

Anyone can see that!

The wrong feelings put tears in the soup, rage in the linen closet,

simple ass frustration under the underwear.

The wrong feelings love white bread and dark beer mixed with ginger ale

Will take vanilla ice cream also with ginger ale and a shot of rum well after 9pm

but just before 10.

The wrong feelings shun exercise and meditation, feel like

yeah, been there, done that, nah.

My very wrong feelings are so familiar like house slippers only

a few months old and already worn beneath the heel. The wrong feelings know how to create

their own groove, carving themselves deep into my hyperactive psyche

trying to get free on the cheap.

The wrong feelings got legs when all I want to do is sit down

They got time, they got patience

They wrong, not hurried.

The wrong feelings know my name, call me over

and over; they sing

girl, don’t you know we here ’cause we yours?

We not wrong. You can’t read and don’t wanna listen.

We are not what’s wrong here.

We just real.

Fear of sitting down

It’s never fully OK to report the extent or depth of my exhaustion. I have learned to lean in so close to the door frame that it’s impossible to tell who is holding whom or what. I hold myself over the flames that will also roast the chicken which will hold the flavor better if I keep it and myself covered and preserve the moisture of the flesh careful not to let it bake too long lest we become tough and unappetizing. The chicken and I are at risk of failing our potential. The parallels are so striking. Watch now. We are both done. Which of us is the burnt one?

Poem 3

is late and undernourished. lacking purpose, vision, art.

REally no reason such a stretch of words should bother to take up

space.

And yet, here it is, a paucity all its own.

Writing My Way Out of a Paper Bag

paper-bag-2804433_1920

I can write my way out of a paper bag.

There, I said it.

“I am large, I contain multitudes” wrote Walt Whitman.

“Me too,” I replied.

I’m trying to pull a book together. I won’t say write a book because not all of it will be from scratch. The goal is to compile, gather, thread and punctuate several pieces of writing with new connective works. On some days I am fully convinced that this is a great idea. On other days, I end up shaking my head and walking away. And here’s where it gets interesting.

When I walk away (or even run away), what do I do?

I go hustle for approval. That’s right, hustle for approval.

I do this at home, at work, in the car, on my phone, in every imaginable context. I make the play again and again, always hot on the heels of some kind of affirmation goodness. Like this:

I run the dishwasher before my partner gets home.

I pull the secret sweets out of my backpack and hand them to my grumpy 10 y-o late in the afternoon when I still have to go grocery shopping.

My students ask, “Is it Awesome Gym Day?” and I think for a moment before saying “Yes, but you’ll have to set it up.”

I return my library books on time and take out two new books. The librarian smiles at me.

I get on Twitter and start scrolling and read two or three blog posts. I quote retweet with a passage from the piece so folks know that I actually read it.

I sweep the bathroom floor after combing my hair because, you know, all those brittle ends go flying all over.

Of course I braid my big puffy hair so that it lays graceful and flat against the side of my head and provides little cause for comment.

I put plenty of cream on my face so my skin looks smooth, even the bags under my eyes.

When I’m talking to others I try to focus on listening even if I’m not all the way in the mood.

I stand at the far corner of the track so that my athletes struggling through the last 150m of a 400 can hear me cheer them on.

So I far I’ve kept my body in about the same size category for about 40 years. People see me and say “you haven’t changed in years.” The effort required is an ongoing accomplishment and never ending challenge at the same time. The hustle is real.

At the end of the school day, I pack up my equipment and drag it back into storage and try to make sure it goes back into the right spaces. My colleagues trust me not to leave a mess.

At home I maintain a particular level of messiness but I can still find things pretty easily. It’s a skill. I may straighten my space up if we have company. (Rare)

I don’t write on a schedule. But someone somewhere always reads what I post and I can’t really quite get over the miracle of how that all takes place.

When I meet parents I usually know their child and have something good to say about him, her or them.

I read to my youngest before he goes to bed. Both of us love this ritual. There’s a special mutuality to this hustle.

Lots of people I know have a hard time imagining me angry. They have simply never seen me that way.

So these are some of my every day hustles. Writing this post certainly falls in that category, too. Hustling for approval is what I do. I want to be seen, liked, appreciated, and loved.

When I am not working on this larger piece of work that is begging for its own future, this is how I am spending my minutes, hours, days. No mask, just the real deal.

I contain multitudes as much as Walt Whitman and I can write my way out of a paper bag while I run around gathering approval points anywhere I can. Truth.

 

  • I am borrowing the term “Hustle for approval” from Brene Brown who uses “hustle for worthiness” in her work.