living (and writing) myself into the questions

blue graffiti of a question markGood morning good morning. The candles are quiet in their glass containers this morning, the city waking slow into the thick grey, the dawn a long hover. What are you letting hover inside you this morning?

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Quick reminders — here’s what’s coming up, workshop-wise:

Writing the Flood meets on the fourth instead of the third Saturday this month, on 7/28

Write Whole: Survivors Write begins another 8-week session on August 6

– The next Coming Home erotic writing salon meets on August 4!

To register for these or with any other questions, contact me!

~ I’m teaching a master class on embodied writing with Memoir Journal on August 25 (to register for this workshop, visit the Memoir Journal site)

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This morning I am thinking about answers, about questions and clarity, about the uses and practice of writing. Yesterday I started reading Yearnings: Embracing the sacred messiness of life, by Irwin Kula, the first chapter of which opens with this:

‘When you’ve got an answer, it’s time to find better questions.’

I had to read that one over and over, transcribed it in my journal, spoke it aloud to myself.

And, of course, there’s the quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that so many of us are familiar with:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I was trained to offer answers — about my neuroses, about my life, about anything unsettled in me. What do I want to say about this? It’s late in the morning and now Sophie needs to go out. The candles are a slight dance to my right and the tea is just now strong enough for me to really enjoy it. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last month or so trying to figure out: what happened for me in May, why I’m not blogging as much after such a powerful engagement with community through the coming home blog; what’s happening with my writing practice and process in this time of transition and transformation; who I am or can be if my identity shifts away from what it’s been for decades.

These are enormous questions, and maybe questions without specific answers, or without single answers. Who am I doesn’t have one answer, does it? But I wanted it to. I wanted it to be clear, I wanted myself to be clear, I wanted to have my list of labels I could offer you when you asked me about myself, I wanted a pithy response.

Is that actually our goal, to condense ourselves into something pithy?

Just because a question doesn’t have a single answer does not mean it’s not of profound use to search for the answer, to presence ourselves with the different listings and leanings of a question’s answer in each moment — but it’s practice (isn’t it?) to allow those answers to be momentary, malleable, unset in concrete.

When I was at Hedgebrook, midway through my two weeks at the retreat, at the first meal after a couple of residents had gone home and a couple new had arrived, one of the new residents used this phrase in reference to her work: “Keep the problem open.” That is, don’t rest in easy or facile answers — and, too, allow yourself, in your writing, not to answer every question, not to tie everything up with a bow.

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When I say I was trained to offer answers, I mean that my mother’s second husband focused a significant amount of his abuse on a kind of psychological warfare, demanding answers from us when we were seemingly sad or confused or normal teenagers frustrated with life: he wanted to know what was going on, what our issues were, and what we were going to do to change our behavior — all of this without, mind you, mentioning that we might be angry or otherwise upset at his ongoing sexual abuse and physical violence. No, it would have had to have been something else, some deeper psychological issue deeper that he wanted us to dig for and bring up from our depths for his inspection and either approval or dismissal. When I found something that he could focus on (away from himself) — maybe missing the father I never saw anymore — I felt tremendous physical relief: there’s the answer. I’m off the hook. That muscle memory lives in me still: the questions cause profound anxiety! I want the answer to release my body from that stress.

Mind you, the answers never set me free for long. There was always more he wanted: my body and heart enacted more unanswerable questions for which he required truncated and falsified answers.

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I have that phrase — Keep the problem open — on a sticky note on the wall next to my bed, so I can see it in the morning when I wake up, and at night before I fall asleep. It’s practice, now, to allow myself not to have an answer for some important question (like, you know, can I trust how I’m feeling, how will I live, is it ok for me to be happy — little things), but to write into the questions anyway, over and over, touching the places in me that sing and harmonize and resonate in answer or response in any given moment, knowing that those songlines are both exactly true and also always shifting. I am trying to learn not to set myself in stone anymore, and that in this malleability I can still be certain and free.

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What questions are rising and singing in you today? What questions do you or your characters need an answer for? (Maybe this one: What am I going to do?) Give your questions ten minutes today — what are they hungry for? What lives on the underside of them? What other questions are your big questions masking? Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go —

Thank you for the questions you enact in your very living, for the answers your blood and breath and bone dance to, for the heat and the breadth of your words.

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