Debbie Millman says that after years of offering her workshop on visual storytelling all over the world she has found that there are two main stories: of love or of loss/longing.
I have told myself and others that I am not much of a storyteller. That is both true and false. We are, as humans, all storytellers. I do not see myself as someone who relates stories well or with great relish.
A title I do claim, however, is listener. Listening is my wheelhouse and making sense of the stories people share feels like a calling.
So when a loved one I have not seen in several years takes the time to tell me parts of her story I never knew, I listen intently.
I learn about myself when I hear you tell me about yourself. My response to your story tells its own story. What you choose to share reveals another story about trust and intimacy. As I listen I become a part of your next stories.
I notice how age calls us to learn our stories by repeating them over and over. We tell the same story in different contexts to show that we know our own minds. We tell the same stories to confirm not only who we are but that we are. Often, the truth and the story do not need each other as much as we think they do.
Not every situation demands a retelling. That is a blessing.
If you listen, you may be surprised to hear which story your own voice is eager to tell.
To create a story from scratch, to build a world far from my own strikes me as by near impossible. I am grateful to the artists who manage it, who demonstrate what’s possible. I sit close and listen.
I began this post while I was still elsewhere but now I'm here, I'm back, I've returned.
Re-turn, to turn again. Where I find myself without knowing exactly what I'm looking for.
A moment passes and instantly we traffic in the past. What came before is neither news nor novelty,
it's memory - unreliable and fuzzy, a liquid relic in a leaky container.
A jumble of instances, experiences within and without, so much to remember and forget.
Re-member, to piece together again. An instinct with difficulty, this process.
I am back and I remember. I return and tell myself stories.
I am here in the now and it is already past.
I return and pave the way to forget.
Story requires permission, right? Along the way to becoming it is subject to decision-making. The storyteller makes the rules.
What I hope you’ll hear could not be farther from my control. I release a story to the wind and its landing will always be a form of mystery. Understand: a feature, not a bug.
Author of fragments, assembler of impressions, writer/unwriter.
I’m back, I’ve returned and the exquisite dilemma of expression teases me with its dance.
Because I don't know where to start, I will.
It occurs to me that among my readings I am listening to women in nature, women
gardening, bird watching, describing flora, attending to clouds and winds.
Women digging in dirt, discovering insects, rodents and snakes, these women.
they tell me about their insides by capturing the complexity of their outsides
I read and I listen, placing a hand over my heart, hearing my full laugh.
Women outdoors and indoors seeing double
seeing more because they must
seeing twice because it's a habit
seeing over and over because that's how you make yourself sure when you're not.
These women in nature, talking of nature, defining nature
making sense. Sense making women talking nature walking nature stalking nature.
Naming flowers and weeds, breeds and seeds; clocking reasons and seasons
and they tell me all about loss
in ways I understand
in ways that make sense
in ways that tell me I'm not the one who's confused. These women
Of feathers, fur, nests and burrows; mating, preying, hatching and losing.
Of blue jays, red wings, yellow tails and cottonmouths
Of chokecherries, gooseberries, honeysuckle, and rambling roses
Of grasshoppers, crickets, spiders and monarch butterflies
Of compost, fertilizer, peat and the true composition of dirt
Of becoming, abandoning, returning, adapting
These women writing on nature
The nature of these women
because it's where we are
because it's what we are
yet so oblivious,
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.
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.
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.
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
*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.
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.
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.
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 LetMe 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.
Something I’ve perhaps forgotten about having a personal blog is that it can be fully what I want it to be. I can write what I want and need to write about. I don’t require an outside prompt or a random deadline. This is my space, for my thoughts, at any given time.
This has never been a blog to sell things. Yes, I published a book but that’s not my point. I’m not here so that I can sell you that book. At the same time, I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a sense of audience. There are in fact a number of kind, generous folks who not only willingly but even gladly spend time with my words, and also tell me so. That’s a remarkable gift every time it happens. I will never outgrow the thrill of learning that my ideas meant something to someone else.
And yet this blog feels like it has become an addendum, a side bar to my other social/intellectual/educational activities. I now put out a monthly newsletter designed to inform and inspire. I still have a publication that holds an impressive archive of writing from educator authors I admire and hold dear. I tweet a lot. I’ve done more presentations in the last 3 months than over the last 2 years.
I wonder about this particular form of what has become pandemic productivity. In this particular year where I have spent so much more time at home, in front of a screen, in correspondence with my students and almost everybody else, I feel like a kind of productivity has arisen that has a lot to do with reassurance in the midst of uncertainty. We write to indicate that we’re still here, still in the world, still at it, still fighting the good fight. We write to let our people know but perhaps even more to let ourselves know – something still works, some things can still be managed, some things are still possible.
I was in a conversation recently where a person spoke of a tension in the shoulders and neck that eased up a few days after the US presidential election. It’s only when we exhale and feel the rush of air escape our mouths that it becomes apparent we were holding our breath the whole time.
I’ve missed writing about feelings more than ideas. It’s a relief to step away from a false need to assert and substantiate every little statement. I am not a study. My emotional dips and crests are not the topic of extensive research. And yet I am a whole person; complicated, thinking, acting, venturing.
Sometimes I ask: what good is writing? when the world keeps asking: which writing is good? My courage these days lies in responding: IDC and that’s not the point.
That is not the point, that is not the point, that is not the point.
Reading is so often about searching, whether we realize it or not. An excitement, a secret revealed, a worry, a fulfillment – we don’t always know what it is we’ll get, but when it comes, we know it and recognize it as ours. This is for me. We feel seen, realize we’re not the only ones. Sometimes it’s a comfort. But horror is also a possibility, I suppose.
To read is to be on the lookout. To have your eyes peeled. Reading lets us pretend that we’re ready. At least that. The truth of our inner state is not the point. Words on page after page that mysteriously hold us – in suspense, in awe, in shock. Reading is a magic trick we keep learning and relearning. The same trick that keeps changing and changing every time we perform it. I do it but I don’t always understand exactly how.
To write feels less like a trick, more like a bodily function, sometimes voluntary but not always.
I regret that this format is so boxy. My blog posts show you boxes of thought (paragraphs), neatly stacked which is a very poor and inaccurate semblance of what I would rather express. What I would rather show you today is the chaos of my thinking, the conundrum of too many threads which resist being woven alongside each other.
The platform itself wants to steer me towards greater boxiness with its “block editor” which I continue to reject as long as I can. I want less standardization, not more. And yet, I keep writing here, where whatever I type begins Black against white but once published, lands Black against cornflower blue – a design choice of questionable merit. The typeface is always Black like me, though.
I will now plunge this post into the chaos I intended.
Never have I felt a need for a king. But now that the greatest of fictions has left us, I mourn. Wakanda forever.
Identity has become my latest soapbox, the one folks ask me to speak from of late. I have mixed feelings about this.
Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how well our school reopening is going so far.
In a conversation about the link between acknowledging the multiple aspects of one’s own identity and seeing the need for anti-racist action, for a brief shining moment it felt like I had an answer that made sense.
I hope that folks do not make me out to be wiser than I am. I try to remind myself that I am more parts ignorance than knowledge. I keep reading. I listen.
Reading can be such a delightfully private affair, especially offline. No one is tracking my tastes, habits or timing while I read a bound book. I wonder how relevant this will be in the long run.
I am grateful for a lifestyle which affords an incredible access to the printed word in myriad formats. This is my parents’ most enduring legacy. They raised me a reader.
Here’s what I’m reading right now: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero, Überseezungen by Yoko Tawanda, and How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow.
My thoughts are scattered, fragmented. I am used to this state. My young students call me back to attention in a heartbeat. I need them to keep me upright and on task. While I’m away from them I read and write with abandon. It’s a form of balance; the very nature of my both/and.
Weekends are for remembering. I forget so much as I go. I fall apart as the week goes on. I pull myself back together – re – member – in these few days of rest.*
Yesterday I had no words but lots of feelings. Today I have the morning and an almost clear conscience.
I wish I could make this post into an assortment of baskets for you to rummage through at your leisure. Instead, I and wordpress give you these boxes of thought. Packaged, contained, labeled.
Even our freedoms are full of constraints.
*The idea of re-membering was introduced to me by Gregg Levoy in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.