What stories do I want to tell?

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Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a
National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

How to Undo Fear: On Fear, Fearlessness + What’s In Between

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When I was a child, I devoured books about strong girls. Old fashioned novels about girls who lived in the woods, and who loved life with this big, abundant abandon. Girls who faced the worst life would give and rose, who were willing to be brave and unapologetically smart. I read Gone with the Wind for the first time when I was ten, and I revered Scarlett O’Hara in all her petty meanness and selfish immaturity—here was a woman bent on survival.

I consumed stories about fearless women, because I imagined that someday, I would grow into a fearless woman. This word—for me, it was a world unto itself.

I think as a kid, I spent more time thinking about my identity than I did trying to create—or at least project—it. Because of that, there were a few individual words—fearlessness among them—that became so big, so prominent in my mental geography. I was this, or at least I would be, when I grew up.

There are a few moments from my life that stand as highway marker, and this is one: In the middle of my freshman year of college mental health crisis, I got lost on a city bus. I misread the schedule or misread the bus—I’m still not sure which—but I wound up getting deposited at an empty transit station, in the wrong downtown, on a street that I did not recognize.

I was terrified.

And not because I didn’t know where I was. This was only six years ago—I had a cell phone with a GPS, and access to both the city wide bus schedule, and people with cars would could come pick me up.

I collapsed in an empty hallway, on a carpet with green and gray squares, and I began to weep. I was so, desperately afraid of absolutely everything. The life I’d been dreaming of since I was a little kid was far, far too big for me, and I was only at the beginning. I was staring down the barrel of my adulthood, and I knew deep in my bones that I was not fearless. I was fear. Without realizing what I was doing, I had accumulated and indexed fears until I was a walking atlas of them.

I was afraid: that my parents would be killed in a car crash, that someone in the transit station would approach me with a question, that I would be invited to a social event and not know what to do, AND that there would be a social gathering and I would not be invited, that my brother would be killed by a shooter at his high school, and that I would never make any friends. I was afraid that I would never write again. I was afraid of my dormitory hallways, and especially afraid of the cafeterias, and afraid of how lonely I was, and afraid of how difficult it was to make friends. I even remember lying awake one night and worrying that I would never have friend with whom I was close enough to fear that someday they too may die a painful and untimely death. (Crazy, I know).

I was a whole landscape of fear, a country of worry held together only by very fragile bones.

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In the months following that breakdown, I had to deal very seriously with my identity. It is truly the only time in my life when I felt utterly lost from myself, and at odds with who I thought I’d been. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t “fearless,” because although I was not, my identity was unstable at a much more fundamental level. I did, however, have to confront the magnitude of my fears.

Ongoing treatment and care for my anxiety has significantly lessened the weight of fear in my life, and the strength of my fears have lessened— less “what is my parents dies in a car accident?” and more “how would I afford another car payment if my transition drops out.” But they are still very, very much with me.

I used to think that I was letting down the young version of myself who thought that strength would be measured, like it was for my heroines, by how little I feared. But here’s the thing. I’ve reread most of my favorite books from my childhood, and I don’t see fearless women anymore. I see fear. These stories are shaped by fear! They’re only compelling because of the fear. Because it’s not a lack of fear that makes Anne beg Matthew and Marilla to keep her, or that makes Hermione brave enough to partner with Harry, or that gives Eowyn the strength to pull off her helmet and look evil in the eye. It’s the decision to act in spite of the fear.

Every single character that I ever adored all had a set of fears unique to themselves, and every single one of them saw their fear, their worst fears, running after them, and not a single one of them ducked. That’s why I loved them. That’s why I wanted to be them.

Fearlessness is not the goal. For me, fear is a companion that I didn’t invite into my house, but that is here, because sometimes it keeps me alive. Maybe it will change, but I doubt it—I’m predisposed to panic, and my craft is my overactive imagination. At this point, fear is in the house, and I can’t make it leave.

I can, however, make it sit in the corner, in the uncomfortable chair, facing the wall. I can tell it to shut up when it starts to drown out the guests that I actually invited over. When it convinces me that the phone only rings when someone dies, or that I can’t take down my Christmas tree, because my dad cut it down, and what if my dad dies before he can down a new tree for me, then I’ll send it to a different room, and make it stare at a blank wall in there.

Giving fear power in the moments when it doesn’t have a valid claim only makes the moments when fear is real, and when it is warranted that much harder. Because fear comes when what we love is threatened. And if we’re being honest, life does not promise to protect that which we life.

One of the very few things we’re promised is suffering. Life will hurt badly. As a friend reminded me after my grandfather died, what I was feeling just then was the result of the very best that life can give—86 years lived, 64 years married, 6 children grown, 14 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren. That’s the best, and that aches.

We’ve all read this before: If we live long enough, everyone we’ve ever loved will die, and if we don’t, we’ll leave behind people in pain.

Fear cannot change the facts. It will only make it harder to live with them. This is a hard truth to hold in your hand—I believe it maybe 2 out of every 50 days, and I act out of that belief only 1. Fear is powerful and seductive, and it is almost all empty promises, broken cisterns that leak water when you’re most in need.

Life comes after us, whether we want it to or not. And all my fearing, all my empty worrying, my obsessive indexing of catastrophe, has not prepared me for what happens when the thing I’ve feared becomes the thing that’s real, and takes its own seat at the table.

 

Going Dark: Autumn Update + Thoughts on Writing and Horror

autumn-walk-10-21-16-34Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat.

Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows I watch. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches.)

I walked through the small woods in my backyard. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hoped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for the men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.
I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

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It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.
I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

CURRENTLY
Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again)
Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2
Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later)
Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.