I’m very grateful to the fabulous Diane Gottlieb for taking time to interview me in this life-affirming conversation about writing, mental health, trauma, bodies, and the inner critic! Please do check out the interview at WomanPause. (Thanks, Diane!)
Below is some process-related rumination about an essay I wrote, which details an experience from 2018. (The “her” mentioned below is a person I met and subsequently wrote about.) In late 2020, the essay was accepted for publication, and was published in summer 2021. It’s hard to imagine that it was just over 2 years between the event and the acceptance, because of how different everything became. Looking at the essay again—mid-pandemic—brought up thoughts about how weird a gig it is, to write essays. I still feel like a novice, because the essay was my second form, after fiction. I didn’t study what it is to be an essayist (whatever that means) and the requisite sharing/exposing of self without the veil of fiction (even with a sculpted persona at the helm). I find it interesting to ponder/obsess about the intricacies involved. Thought this bit might be worth sharing.
Written on November 21, 2020 (from morning pages)
I started looking at the essay and wow, it’s kind of badly overwritten. It’s sort of cringey! I mean I need to pare down some of the language. I’ve gone really far in making it way too articulate or maybe it’s skirting clever. I don’t like the voice somehow. It’s weird that I am having such a strong reaction to it. I just need to make it good enough & send it back but it’s really hard. I would revise the whole thing (and maybe I will). Maybe it could be that it just feels self-indulgent because it’s pre-COVID, maybe I just need to let it be pre-COVID and not sweat it. It just sounds really full of myself, or something. I think I need to talk to MT about it. It will be helpful to sort it out. I guess I should have looked it over before I sent it. I’ll see if I can just simplify the sentences. Part of it is that with an essay, I captured & canned the feelings and specifics at the time, and I really would write it differently now, I think—? Maybe I can find a way through it without being weirded out by the finished product. Anyway, we’ll see. I wish I had learned her name, or something—I wasn’t really even processing it all, when I met them, how big a deal their story would be. And I don’t want to sensationalize their story, like make it into “disaster porn” or appropriate it. Anyway I’ll just look at the sentences & try to make it better. What’s weird, of course, is that the (name of magazine) will publish it, so in that way, I’ll be exposing the younger me as narrator—it just feels weird. Maybe it’s just the problem of an old essay. Maybe I should put the lens I have now on it, if that doesn’t throw things off. I feel like it needs a date stamp or something. I wonder if that’s relevant. I mean do I need to make clear that it’s pre-COVID-19? I’ll see what I can make of it so it’s still relevant. Or at least so I can stand the sentences & the voice. Such a weird-ass gig. I’m glad the editor accepted it & I will do my best. I know there’s something real in it, and maybe I will work The Body Keeps The Score back into it. I’ll see if that paragraph will work again—I liked having it in there. For one thing it shows a bit about how trauma works, and I think that’s useful. God, this is hard. I mean the decisions & lenses and all that. Having experienced whatever we have experienced, then the work of sorting it, making sense or at least a little bit of order, or observations about it. It’s actually fairly scientific. I don’t know if others think of it that way, but it makes sense to me. I mean to think of scientific inquiry.
Whenever I’m staring at something like this mess, there’s an urge to whine (and brag?). Both.
The writing process. The glamour.
Ninety more pages like this, single-spaced.
The tired eyes.
This page isn’t even the worst of it!
But I know if I just take the time, nip and tuck, and keep moving onward, the novel will emerge stronger for it.
…when you hand yourself over to an hour freewrite about numbers and math, and it all adds up to the shape your bones will be when your body goes to the fire. (& instead of scrawling your usual “thank you” at the end of your freewriting, which Laraine Herring taught you in her workshop—thanking yourself and your writer self for showing up—you write “mic drop.”)
Here’s a leftover I meant to post from my November inner critic letter-a-day challenge (to myself). Uncooked, raw, basically how it came out. Also: in the letter below, where I write “I was born to fly”, I would clarify that we were all born to fly.:
November 19, 2017
Dear Inner Critic,
Well, apparently you are a risk manager and I’m curious what’s the risk? What is it that is on fire? The house already burned down, it’s gone. What are you afraid of? You seem to be afraid I’ll make any noise, that I’ll embarrass you or be noticed (or just seen) and that somehow scares you. You don’t want me to stand out, you want me to fit in & do what the world seems to want safe people to do. But I was born to fly. It’s not a safe thing, but I can try and work and fail and try again. I am a survivor, you know that, and if I fail, or get ignored, or rebuffed, or insulted, I will be okay. I’m stronger than you think I am. Also, I do appreciate your care—I know it’s a twisted kind of caring, the risk managing, the alert and hyper-vigilant posture. I know it’s because you want to protect me. But I need to follow the call and take risks and I need to be allowed to make a fool of myself, and I need to jump off the cliff and trust my strong wings. I’ve been flapping them and practicing with a helmet long enough. The helmet blocks my vision, the pads are too heavy. I don’t need them. I am strong and my body can sustain a fall. Because we work in metaphor and I’m not literally going to jump my unwinged human body off a cliff, I need you to know I’ll be safe, I am safe. I am using my words and my heart for this work, and my body is safe, and my spirit can only be fulfilled if I try and don’t shrink down from your alerts and warnings. I need you to know that I understand the alerts and warnings come from your wounded love for me. How you remember all the hurts and how they feel like they are happening now, but I survived those nasty in the woodsheds, and I can survive what’s to come, so I can do my work, and soar.
I love you.
Yesterday my students and I brainstormed on the board to get what poet Cathy Smith Bowers has called the lump of clay to start (writing anything, but in this case) making poems. We got lots of words on the board, narrowed things down and ran out of time so I said I’d write up something which, tomorrow, we will shape into poems (if possible).
Here are the two lumps of clay:
(This one is from the original phrase “burning house” which landed on cat eating tinsel, and there was something about getting attention, and then my cat inspired me in the middle of the night, so timely, so thank you, Zlateh. These line breaks were my first pass/how it came out. We will negotiate all and deal with the repetition, etc. tomorrow.)
come to where the hands are
or dance around the bed half the night.
I don’t need sleep.
It’s fine, but so much simpler if you would come to where the hands are,
or eat tinsel from the tree,
anything, anything to get my attention
but wouldn’t it be nicer
if you came to where the hands are,
to pleasure us both?
Traverse (or travel) the ridge of my body
bleating your needy meow.
It’s fine, it’s okay, I can’t sleep anyway.
Dance around the bed half the night,
the other half, walk the ridge of my body,
bleating your flat meow.
I can’t sleep anyway.
(This one is from the original word “snow” which ended on glitter demon, idolized but evil. This one was extra fun for me, ahem. We’ll see about line breaks & whatever tomorrow in class.)
You consider yourself beautiful, all shine and polish and perfection. You stand upon that pedestal with such a casual air, as if you couldn’t fall from there. Every day you are reset, like a piece of machinery, you get up and just start a new day. You claim to be immortal. Silver and gold wrap the warp of your vile insides, and not one of us notices the cruel cutting you do, until it’s too late, until we’re bleeding in the glittery, hard diamond snow of this four-year winter. How much blood and history will we lose without knowing it before we wake up and knock you off that stool. You make me want to hate, if I could. I want you to shatter, I want to shave off all that lying gloss and sparkle, I want you to bleed like we are bleeding, I want instant karma, I want a recount, I want changes of hearts, for all of us, if not for you.
I finished typing up the Bewildering Whatever-it-is begun at Omega with Nick Flynn (and mentioned here). I don’t know what it is or will be. I keep thinking of it as a coil of DNA for a memoir. It’s about 13,000 words. There will be more words as I uncoil and discover itself.
Last night, I dreamt an agent said there’s a lack of confident storytelling in my novel. (When I woke, and did today’s letter to the inner critic, I asked the critic what she does while I sleep.) I don’t think it’s true that there’s a lack of confident storytelling in my novel. Laughed it off.
Within a few hours, I got a kind rejection from an agent who has some very big name clients. (Another agent at her agency, whom I had approached to represent me, had been complimentary about the novel, and on her own initiative, forwarded the manuscript to this big-name agent thinking it might be more her style.) The big-name agent got back to me quickly, and was also complimentary about the novel, said, “It’s full of mystery and atmosphere, poetry, even.” But said she doesn’t think she could sell it. I understand it’s a business. I’m grateful for the kind words about my writing. I trust someday I will find an agent or press who will say YES, and take a risk on my work.
May it be sooner than later.
I am issuing a gift/challenge/invitation for the month of November (a month I love to abhor, by way of Tom Waits’ “November,” which you can hear him perform here and read lyrics below.).
(If you read this after November, it’s never too late. Start anytime! And this does not have to be elaborate. You can simply do a 2 minute power pose, then write “Dear Inner Critic” across the top of a page, and write a letter. Or skip the power pose—though if you’ve never tried a power pose, it might be useful. It might help you feel stronger as you approach the letter.)
Every day, for 30 days, communicate with the inner critic. (If you miss a day, okay. But do as many days as you can.) (If you don’t know what the inner critic is, good for you! You don’t need this practice. If you do need it, read on.)
This work involves free-writing without stopping, without editing. The general rules are to keep writing for a set amount of time (or one page), and if you don’t know what to write, just write the words “tick tick tick” until you get back to what you are writing. If you only have 5 minutes, that’s fine! It can still be very useful. (The “tick tick tick” is courtesy of Lynda Barry, whom I’ve blogged about here.)
OPTIONAL PREPARATION (Not mandatory, but helpful):
- Watch Lynda Barry’s 15 minute video, “The Answer Is In The Picture”.
- Watch Amy Cuddy’s 30 second video about power poses (or if you have more time, watch this 17-minute one.)
DAY ONE: Get paper and pen.
Imagine, describe, SEE the inner critic. (If you watch Lynda Barry’s video, you might think of the inner critic as the mom with the bacon, interrupting the kid in the middle of his playing to say, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”) It’s fun to start by drawing the Inner Critic—use the Lynda Barry method using a random shape, then making it into a monster or character. Whatever works! But don’t think it in your head. Instead, move pen on paper to make the thing come to life (and to get it out of your body). Set a timer for 2 or 3 minutes if it helps. You can describe the inner critic with words if you want to. The point is to somehow embody (on paper) the inner critic. When you’re done drawing or writing the character, take a moment to name this thing.
Then on a new page, write Dear Inner Critic… and write a letter, as long as you want. Sign your name when you’re done. (I’ve done this with young people who have asked “Can I use bad words?” Yes. You can use bad words.)
DAY TWO (& BEYOND)
Write a letter to the inner critic/monster/thingy every day for 30 days. You can also try any of the activities below if you get bored with letters. But remember, boredom is often good and necessary! I’ve done a letter every day for 30 days. One page at the beginning of my morning pages. (If you don’t know what the morning pages are, go here.) When I wrote a one page letter to my inner critic for 30 days, I arrived at some plateaux where I thought I was saying the same thing day after day (and thought, This isn’t getting me anywhere!). It got a little boring. But I kept doing it day after day, and noticed that things began to shift. I gained some pretty nuanced understanding of the dynamic between “me” and the inner critic (which is part of me, of course, which is part of the point). Among other things.
Alternatives to the daily letter (use any or all, combine, okay!):
- Write the GIFT that you would give your inner critic. (It’s my suspicion that there is something the inner critic is lacking.) Describe the gift in great detail, how you would wrap the gift, etc. Really give time to What’s missing? What do they need? You might try: Dear Inner Critic, if I could give you a gift, it would be… (What is his/her/their/its deepest unmet need?) (You can also give them something you want to give them, but which they would not necessarily want!)
- Write a dialogue between you and critic—you get the first line and the last line!
- Write a physical fight scene!
- Draw a one-page comic! Color it in! Good, good good!
If you know some friends who want to do this together (every day, or at some point in the month) maybe after you write, someone will want to read back what they wrote. If so, while the person reads, everyone else must draw a slow, careful spiral a la Lynda Barry’s practice, and listen quietly–MOST IMPORTANTLY, GIVE NO FEEDBACK!
Take care of yourself. This inner critic practice can be hard and upsetting, so please do figure out what support you need. It can bring up stuff that might need more time and attention than you can easily give it. Have a cup of tea or some sitting and breathing (or whatever nourishes you) as needed, and be extra generous with yourself now.
Please let me know how it goes! I’m going to do it, too. (Eeek!)
p.s. I’ve written about self-doubt here.
p.p.s. I’ve written about the inner critic practice, including some of my letters, here.
p.p.p.s. If this practice is useful to you, remember: YOU CAN DO THIS ANYTIME! You don’t have to do it for a whole month. Have a job interview? Put the inner critic in its place before you brush your teeth that day! Find the inner critic something else to DO while you do what you need & want to do (without static from the inner critic).
NovemberIt only believes
In a pile of dead leaves
And a moon
That’s the color of boneNo prayers for November
To linger longer
Stick your spoon in the wall
We’ll slaughter them allNovember has tied me
To an old dead tree
Get word to April
To rescue me
November’s cold chainMade of wet boots and rain
And shiny black ravens
On chimney smoke lanes
November seems odd
You’re my firing squad
With my hair slicked back
With carrion shellac
With the blood from a pheasant
And the bone from a hare
Tied to the branches
Of a roebuck stag
Left to wave in the timber
Like a buck shot flag
Go away you rainsnout
Go away blow your brains out
Fall cleaning and (finally, again) rifling through piles of paper so I can some day love my office…I found evidence that my new project is actually quite old. Turns out I’ve been writing it for years.
It’s hard to articulate how comforting this is. Like finding out you are who you always thought & hoped you were. Soon I’ll have the luxury of going to a week-long workshop where I can dive into that mess.