Tag Archives: dorothy allison

“I had something else in mind to do”

There was something I wanted to keep dreaming. I keep the lights off, light the candle, dim the screen on the computer monitor, start to type. Can I find it again?

The therapist says to me, you are so afraid. She asks about my anger, and we end up talking about fear. I am afraid my mother will leave me again, I am afraid my stepfather could still come after me, I am afraid of failing and of succeeding, I am afraid of being too much and not enough. I think about the small one in me, still so afraid, probably 12 years old, that kid who was so angry. Something got stopped there, around her fury, her sorrow, her confusion — wait, this isn’t really happening, is it? He’s not really going to talk to my mom like that? He’s not going to be allowed to talk to us like that, is he? She’s going to call him out, she’s going to challenge him. This isn’t going to be our life.

Didn’t I think for a little while that maybe that wouldn’t really be our life?

I have been thinking about regret, about how much I imagine now that I might have been able to do with the last 20 years of my life if I hadn’t been, first and foremost, focused on surviving.

Yes, I know we get to be grateful for the places we get to eventually — we get to be grateful that, eventually, we heal enough that we can find a way back into intimacy. We can find a way back into love. We can find a way back into these bodies that have carried us around, and even through hell. Eventually we find a way home, into ourselves and our real lives, if we are lucky and persistent and don’t die in the meantime. Please hear me: this isn’t about self pity – I just feel sad.

When we say they steal our souls, steal our lives, this is what we mean — they impact what we can do with our capacity, our possibility, our incipience, our nascence. They leak their barrels of crude oil into the complex and just-becoming pond that we were, they poison all of the very many different selves we had before us to possibly become.

And so, instead of getting to focus our energies on becoming one of those many selves, instead we spend our years cleaning the pond, trying to remove the oil. First coming in with big booms to isolate and clear out what remains of the spill en mass, taking away the biggest clumps of poison, soaking it up into some kind of nontoxic material that can hold it safely away from us, then we wipe off the biggest animals, the ducks and muskrats and deer and raccoons; one by one, wipe out eyes, wash and wash until most of the oil is gone. We clear away what died in the soil, after spending years trying to fertilize, heal, bring it back to life. We spread out fire-retardant material, we post sentries and guards at the edges of the pond, all around, trying to keep watch on all sides, wanting to keep out anyone who might want to pollute us so badly again. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we are not — but the energy expended is still the same.

We spend years wondering why anyone would want to do such a thing to such a pristine and needed landscape.

We teach ourselves biologics, become environmentalists, scientists — we learn to develop little animals that will feed on what’s left of the poison, that will consume what molecules are left in the water and will seek out the bits that fell to the floor of the pond, permeated the water, soaked into the sand, coated the tadpoles and minnows and frogs and turtles, got inside their mouths, ate into the grasses and pond marsh and tilted the ecosystem toward death. We spend the bulb and blossom of our lives just trying to clean up a toxic waste site.

We watch our friends come into full flower: making connections, reaching out, writing books, making marriages and families, developing their craft, developing their skills, developing themselves; we watch them building careers, and wonder what is wrong with us. But we are still cleaning up the superfund site left inside of us. We are painstakingly wiping off every blade of grass and feather of every bird that is a necessary part of our inside selves. And the oil never is completely eradicated, we can’t clean it all up  — some of the areas impacted never recover, never bounce back, never become what they ought to have been able to become. And then we simply have to mourn their loss, grieve what they might have been. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain … and also, meanwhile, there are other oil spills everywhere, meanwhile those who polluted us are allowed to continue with their devastation, meanwhile the balance of power is not upset, meanwhile you and I spend years teaching ourselves and then teaching others how to clean up the mess that our perpetrators made of our souls, made of our lives.

What if there was something els we had in mind to do?

There is a Dorothy Allison poem that lives in me — it was written in the aftermath of the homophobic murder of a lesbian in Boston, who was splashed with gasoline and set on fire. In the poem, the narrator imagines the voice of that woman who’d been alit, “This is not all I am / I hd something more in mind to do.” (From the poem “boston , massachusetts,” in the collection, The Women Who Hate Me)

Something in us screams this as well. This is not all I am. I had something more in mind to do. I wanted to be more than a survivor, more something that needed to be healed. We are forced, though someone else’s actions, to turn our precious attentions, to turn the energy of our one wild and precious life to the effort of cleaning up someone else’s mess — and for may years we feel like that mess is us. I felt like that mess was me. 20 years — half of my life so far. What if I’d had something else in mind to do?

Some choices are made for us. But sometimes — eventually — we get to make different choices for ourselves. We clean off the last feather of the last duck, we have rehabilitated the wild grassland that was so devastated, roped it off long enough that there’s new life beginning to emerge, the treebirds have begun to return, we can see bees and butterflies  in the wildflowers that have begun to blossom again, little fish have come back out of hiding, eventually, we can be restored.. The landscape, the habitat, is never returned to exactly the state it was before the disaster — but it can heal.

I know I’m taking this metaphor too far, but I can’t stop today. Rehabilitating a wild ecosystem is an enormous undertaking, one that takes time and money and resources that we might have otherwise devoted to other efforts, other work, other interests, other curiosities. And it’s an effort that often goes almost wholly unseen.

And it’s one thing if we are rehabilitating something in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but instead we are trying to take back what another human being — or, sometimes, a whole society — decided to try and ruin, to take for themselves, to spill all over and into and leave covered with his garbage. We, the ecosystem, the landscape, are not garbage. We are not trash, and we deserve all of the effort at cleanup. We deserve to have every bit of our ecosystem attended to during the cleanup process — every microbe, every biological organism, every single-celled paramecium, every shellfish dug into the mud, every clump of wild rose, every spray of tidegrass, every layer of water that expands and contracts through winter freezes and spring thaws and the hot labor of summer — every bit of ourselves deserves attending to. And the truth is that we might have done something else with all of that time and attention. And it isn’t fair. And yes, we do it anyway. We ought to have been able to do what our classmates or neighborhood friends did and just turned our attentions outward, toward our curiosities, our growth and potential, we ought to have just been able to sit back and nurture the wild complexity that was our inner self and, while continuing to tend to all of the layers, inner and outer, deep water and treetop, birds and fish, then live into the complex diversity that would emerge in us and of us.

Do you understand what I am saying? I am trying to find a language for what is stolen from us — actually taken. It’s not our souls — our souls are always with us. What’s stolen is our time. We have precious little time in this life, and that is what they take from us. That is what is irreplaceable. Our bodies and hearts recuperate, because we are extraordinarily resilient, because we are capable and adoring, because we don’t take no for an answer from the bits of inside self that want to give up and die. Many of us don’t die. But our trajectories are forever altered. Our lives are interrupted, turned. Our sovereignty is inflicted upon, eroded, the life we were becoming gets aborted, in favor of cleaning someone else’s mess.

They don’t have to clean us up, those who wreak the havoc in the first place. They’re off in their lives — maybe unimpacted, maybe continuing to create destruction elsewhere around the world, and in and on others, maybe confined to a cell or in the absence of other victims, having only themselves to desecrate. But they are not the ones who have to clean up after themselves. What would that look like? What would a system of justice look like that would demand that those who perpetrate intimate violence have to make it possible for the mess they made gets cleaned up — and they are on the hook until their damage is righted? Not that we are property that has been damaged or broken, but that we are a habitat that needs to be restored.

Of course it’s not too late — it’s never too late to be the selves we might have become. e.e. cummings is said to have said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” We become hybrid — old and new selves, old and new growth, and we take strength from the labor, the effort, the attention paid, lessons learned, from blisters and aching backs, from sorrow at what has been lost, and joy at what emerges from the ashes. For life persists in the aftermath of destruction. That’s what they can never fully kill, and what brings us rising to the surface, again and again and again.

(nablopomo #14) writing the wolf

graffiti of a shorts-wearing Little Red Riding Hood, next to the words "Fear makes the wolf look bigger." In the image, Red is placing a spray-paint can back into her basket.Good morning good Monday morning. Here, things are just beginning — it feels like they’ve been churning for hours: thin dreams, half-waking, in all the worlds at once.

The nablopomo prompt for today is another from Ricki Lake: I was terrified to go on DWTS, but facing my fear and overcoming it has been an incredible experience. Have you faced fears and overcome them?

There’s another prompt that my friend Ellen offered me recently: What would you write on a piece of paper that you were going to burn immediately after writing?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about facing fears in writing, and fears of writing. What are the places I’m afraid to go in my writing, and how do I push into and through those edges, write anyway? There are pieces of my own story that I never write, never talk about, never engage. They sit, still, bulbous, inside me, and I’m afraid of what will happen when I attempt to find language for them. Will I be up to their tellings? Will I be able to find the right words? Will it be too overwhelming for me?

The more I live into those questions, the bigger the wolf gets for me — right? Whatever the task, the more I avoid that task, the scarier it looks. Always. And then, nearly every time, when I actually just let myself take it on and do it, I find that 1) I am capable and can handle it (or can ask someone to help me, who is willing to do so), and 2) that it wasn’t as bad as I’d built it up to be. Mostly right now I’m thinking about my taxes. But there’s also this little business about writing something that terrifies me.

What do we do with the writing that we both want and don’t want, with the stories that we need and that we don’t want to commit to the page? What happens with these stories that scare us?

Dorothy Allison talks about the importance of writing in/to our fear, that what we’re afraid of holds an awful lot of energy, and that energy will emerge on the page, will transmit to the reader, will bring the story alive. We have to be willing to go directly into what terrifies us.  That will bring us naked on the page. We can use that energy, the energy of our fear, to bring the writing vivid and alive for the reader.

We pay attention to what we’re afraid of, don’t we? I can tell you how my stepfather’s face looked when he was getting angry, when he was shifting from Fine to Fucked-Up. I remember the nuances of the dining room table, the one I stared at during the hours and hours we had to sit there and confess all of our psychological workings, every thought and imagining. I remember my sister’s face, I remember how the light was in the house, I remember the qualities of silence in each room around his voice, around each of our own, how the house, his house, seemed to swallow us, the way he wanted to. Those details, when I can get into them, are important — they allow the reader to be there with my narrator, exactly in the situation with her.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to writing that’s drawn closely from life. There’re fiction stories that scare us, too. What happens when you meet a telling, a character, who both draws you in and repels you? What happens when you let yourself all the way into her, anyway, even though you find her disturbing, even though you question what it means about you that you can imagine her so clearly? I think it can be useful not to analyze too much, but just to write it — don’t worry about where she comes from. We all have plenty of models of terrible behavior to draw from. Use your fear of her to show her vividly.

There’s power in the material we’re afraid of, and we can make it ours, we can take it back. All those stories that we’re afraid of, they’re ours now, just ours. I say write them, even if you need to tear out the pages after you’re done writing and shove them into the back of a drawer (I myself don’t advocate burning any writing, but I’m a packrat when it comes to writing — you do what you need to do.)

Is there a story you want to write that you’re afraid of? Pat Schneider gives this simple prompt: Write something that scares you. Take 10 minutes, go into it. Give me the qualities of light, expressions on faces, how the narrator felt in their body.  Keep to that time limit, whatever you set for yourself. Dive in, then come back out, and stop for today. You can come back to the story; there’s no need to push into overwhelm.

Then, after you write, do something excellent for yourself. Go to the ocean, get a coffee at your favorite cafe, call a friend and laugh. Celebrate your success.

You face your fears every morning — thank you for that. Thank you for the fears your writing names and shows, thank you for the ways you’ve taken that power back for your own use. Thank you for your words.

Tomales Bay

graffiti typewriterToday I head out to the Tomales Bay Writing Workshops, head out for  a five-day writing workshop with Dorothy Allison and deep writing community in a place that I love, and it’s thanks, completely, to you.

Thank you.

A few months ago, I applied for a fellowship to this workshop, and then didn’t receive it. I had told myself, initially, well, if I don’t get the fellowship, then fine, I just won’t go. But I got the letter informing me that I’d been placed in Dorothy Allison’s workshop and they hoped I could join them just the same, even though they had given the fellowships to other folks. Something in me said, the writer part said, we have to go anyway. I couldn’t afford it, not without help. We had sudden bills that were coming due, family business that needed dealing with, low enrollment in workshops — still: we have to go anyway, the part in me said. Just ask for help.

So I asked you for help. And you came through with help, and I was stunned. I still am. I described the process to someone yesterday, and she said, And how does that feel? Like affirmation, right? and I said, Oh, right, yes, like affirmation. I was going to say, like pressure. And so she and I talked abut shifting that inside message, paying attention to the way in which each of those gifts of money and messages of support and encouragement weren’t about pressuring me to write something in particular or to “be good” in some specific way (sigh), but about supporting this side of my work, the writing side. (The Mr. helps me re-think those messages, too.) I’m a little overwhelmed, considering it now, and kind of verklempt, and so very grateful to you all. I want to do right by you, and can’t wait to share with you what I learn at the workshop.

I’ll be working on a tiny excerpt of this novel I’m in the middle of, that I may be in the middle of for awhile. Right now it’s at 168 single-spaced pages. Sometimes I double-space it, just to give myself a thrill. I’ll be working with Dorothy Allison. (You know her work, right? She wrote Bastard out of Carolina, which about everyone has heard of and should read, and also the amazing collections Women Who Hate Me, Skin, Trash and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, as well as another novel, Cavedweller. I would invite you to read them all.) I think I mentioned that already, and I might do again — it’s not quite real to me yet. Hold hopes for me that I don’t devolve into a slavering fangirl in front of her, ok? Also, Danzy Senna will be there, whose book, Caucasia, I reread at least once a year or so — I very much hope to get a chance to talk with her as well.

She asked us to have read Ursula K. Le Guin’s book on writing, Steering the Craft. I’ve liked reading it as homework, and appreciate, too, the opportunity to think more on craft. In the workshops I offer, while we do some craftwork (not kraftwerk), it’s always rather through the back door — we’re much more focused, at writing ourselves whole, in generating the material to work with, in trusting the guidance of our writing voices, and learning by listening to and commenting on one another’s work. The craft comes in through the backdoor, when I offer an exercise that’s all in dialogue, or we use a simile/metaphor prompt, or a prompt that invites us to consider setting and detail. We just don’t talk about those craft parts as much as folks might happen in other writing workshops. It’s good, sometimes, to refocus, to let craft in through the front door, and I’m enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s clear, invitational-yet-instructive voice. Reading the book, I have the sense of being in a workshop with her, which, of course, is the point. (Also, she encourages a re-reading of some of the classics, for specific writing-related purposes, and also purely for love of reading. I haven’t read most of our classic works, and am feeling invited to do so after spending time with Steering the Craft.)

So this morning we’re headed up to Tomales Bay for some time in Inverness, maybe a little stop at Spirit Matters, maybe some beach time for the puppy and the mama and the papa, and then I’ll go to the workshop. I won’t be blogging from there, I don’t think — I’m leaving the computer at home, anyway, will be handwriting this weekend. Whew. I do have a little wordpress app on the cellphone, so we’ll see what the at&t service is like up there.

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As a prompt for today, and maybe for the week, I’d invite you to generate a list of places that you or your character love. Choose one of them for today (or let one choose you) and describe that place — begin with just the place itself, no people, no description of why it’s beloved to you or the character; stay with the details.  Then, if you are feeling drawn to, bring yourself or your character or other people into that place — let us see what happens there.

Tomorrow choose another of the places from your list. Just ten minutes — give yourself ten minutes for this thing you love, this writing work. If you start on the prompt and end up going in a completely different direction, if you stop and write, You know, this isn’t what I really want to write about. What I really want to say is — and then take the work in the direction of whatever it is your heart wants to write just now, that’s exactly perfect.

(You can also create a list of people you or your character loves, and start writing by describing one of those people — just describe them, and let the love and relationship come through in the details you or your character notice to reveal to us.)

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Thank you thank you. I’ll be back with you in five days. Thanks for your affirmation. I want to be able to offer just the same back to you.

thoughts for a Monday

graffiti of stars painted on a brick wall; the painting also shows the silhouette of a person holding a spray can, creating the art.Something from this weekend:

Living on the edge means recognizing those places and experiences that do not offer me easy answers, those fierce edges of life where things are not as clear-cut as I hope for them to be. There is beauty in the border spaces, those places of ambiguity and mystery.

– Border Spaces, by Christine Valters Paintner

Here is another:

The Nigerian storyteller Ben Okri says that “In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”

– The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, by Thomas King.

One more:

One time, twice, once in awhile, I get it right. Once in a while, I can make the world I know real on the page. I can make the women and men I love breathe out loud in an empty room, the dreams I dare not speak shape up in the smoky darkness of other people’s imaginations. Writing these stories is the only way I know to make sure of my ongoing decision to live, to set moment to moment a small piece of stubbornness against an ocean of ignorance and obliteration.

– Trash, Dorothy Allison

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Why are you writing this morning? Give yourself 10 minutes to start your week out with words: what are the stories that need telling from last week, from this weekend, from your dreams? You might also write from any response you have to the image above, to one or more of this morning’s quotes: follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go. Begin this week with your words!

Thank you for the brilliance (sometimes quiet, sometimes loud) of your resilience and your resistance. Thank you for all the ways you grow and stretch, for your willingness to risk growing and stretching. Thank you for your words.