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#WritingOurselvesWholeBook has arrived!

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, held in a hand over toys and a wooden floor
The picture my sister texted when she received her copy of Writing Ourselves Whole in the mail! It’s how I knew the book was out in the world!

Good morning, good morning!

We’ve reached that beautiful moment in the SF Bay area when the light begins to change, school gets going again, the leaves on our few deciduous trees start to change color and fall — and suddenly summer arrives in the Bay Area. I hope you are enjoying this warm weather — and staying cool and hydrated in the places where it’s been extra hot.

I have an exciting announcement: the book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Heal and Recover from Sexual Trauma, is now available, both in stores and online, in print and e-book format! I found it on a bookstore shelves yesterday (thanks to our local Barnes and Noble in El Cerrito, the only bookstore left in town!) and finally got to lay my hands on a copy — see below there for the picture of me by the books on the shelf, after I got to autograph them!) 

Jen smiles big next to the Writing Ourselves Whole book on a bookstore's shelves!
Jen smiles big next to the Writing Ourselves Whole book on a bookstore’s shelves!

Thank you so much for all of your support, encouragement, and enthusiasm over these months of the publication process — I honestly can’t wait to hear what you think! (I, myself, am terrified to even open the cover.)

(For those who have gotten the book and have thoughts you’d like to share with others, even a brief review on Amazon or Goodreads goes such a long way. Thank you!)

Coming soon: the #WritingOurselvesWholeBook launch party! I’ll be in touch a little more frequently over the next few months with announcements about readings in the Bay Area and also elsewhere around the country. (If you would like me to come and offer a reading/book signing/workshop in your area, please let me know!)

If you have or are already reading the book, I so hope you enjoy it, are inspired to write, and then share it with friends, pass it around, maybe even start a survivors writing circle of your own. 

Thank you for your words today, and every day. 

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book snippet: who asks us?

(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From the section “who asks to hear your story?”:

“What happened to you? What was your childhood like? Want to tell me what brings you in today? How are you doing? Why don’t you like me to touch you there? Why are you so quiet/loud/scared/angry/sad all the time? How come you have so much sex? Why don’t you like surprises? How come you won’t have sex with me? What happened that night? Why don’t you want to talk about it? Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”

To be asked to “tell your story,” one of your core-being stories, is to be asked for a piece of your heart, a chunk of your Real Self. When someone says to me, I want to hear your story, my belly tightens with hope and anxiety. Sharing my history of sexual abuse and how I’ve lived since is a wildly vulnerable act. What if they can’t take it? I worry. What if they can’t really hear me? And, maybe even scarier to consider: What if they can?

Who asks to hear traumas stories—I mean, really hear them? And how long does it take to believe that someone really wants to hear us?
Cops ask some of us. Parents ask. Sometimes a friend will ask. Sometimes lovers ask. Therapists, of course. That’s not very many people. Most of the people we spend our lives around don’t ask and don’t want to know. They want a pop song, a poster, a bumper sticker. They don’t want the sticky sweet rot of our true details. That messes up the cool ocean breeze and gently swaying grasses of their triumphant sunset cinematic fantasies of Everything Is All Better Now.

This sounds cynical. I understand the triumphant sunset cinematic fantasy, of course I do. I carry it, too. It’s a great place to visit, but a hard place to be expected to live.

•§•

Of course, a powerful draw of therapy is that someone to listen to our whole story with compassion and empathy and non-judgment (at least, ideally). The bounds of the therapeutic relationship mean that our telling is contained and confined, which we often need.
Consider what it takes for us to unravel our full story for those who share the rest of our lives. What a risk, to allow ourselves to be more fully beheld.

We believe no one will love us if they know who we really are, what we carry, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us—and the more we don’t expose ourselves to those we love, the more certain we are of the old story of our unlovablity.

And then what if they can’t hold it? We are afraid that our stories, that we ourselves, are “too much”—and given that our story has probably frightened or overwhelmed friends, that we’ve had family ignore or discount what we told them, this fear doesn’t arise out of nowhere.

The page asks for your story. In writing, we can be free to say just what we want to say, to tell the story however we want to tell it, without editing ourselves based on how our listener reacts. A workshop participant once described to me a difference she appreciated between a traditional support group and the survivors writing group: in the support group, she spent a lot of the session rehearsing what it was she wanted to say, or editing it based on the group’s energy, so she couldn’t focus well on the folks who shared before her. In our writing group, though, we all wrote together, and when it was time to share, because her story was already crafted, she could give more attention to the other stories being shared in the circle—and trusted that she had the full attention of others in the room as well.

Just because someone has asked for our story doesn’t mean we should tell them, doesn’t mean they can hold us, doesn’t mean they’re safe. We listen to our instincts. We know when someone is interested, really interested, in hearing more, when someone has shut down or slipped into overwhelm. We expand or pull back in, accordingly. We don’t want to slip the sticky heartbeat of our stories into hands that cannot hold them, into ears that have turned to stone—or worse, to negative judgment or disbelief. We employ the skill (likely developed during our abuse) to redirect attention away from ourselves. Sometimes we tell those wrong folks anyway, because we are hopeful and lonely, because we want to believe they’re good for us (no matter what our intuition says), and sometimes because we believe or feel like we have no other choice.
I have had ridiculous responses to my stories. Someone once asked, “Did you like what you did with your sister?” Someone else asked, “Do you think about doing it again when you see her now?” Others have believed that now they understood, after having heard some part of my history, why I was queer, or why I was feminist. Some listeners have cut me off with the sincere appellation “brave,” when what I wanted was to be understood as so much more complicated than that.

What I want to tell is the truth, to burst the bubble of that sunset fantasy. What I want is to download it all so that I don’t have to tell it again, even though I will never stop telling it. What I want is to get it right so that you can see the land I live in and what I look like inside, so that I don’t have to be alone there anymore.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)

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book snippet: what writing can do

(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From the section “what writing can do for survivors”:

This is what I believe: Give us safe space, a “room” of our own and we will create change in our lives. We learn what it means to lie and truth our way to safety, to lie our way home. We must take what we need to continue the process of survival, which is ultimately a process of resistance: the pen the paper the time the space the cafe or bedroom or kitchen table the 3 a.m. living room the subway train the cemetery the laundromat the whatever it is we need.

Take me backward into your dreams and let me watch you stumble. Your language is yours alone, the sounds of your body the stretch and wrinkle of your face the wrinkled words and nods, shrugs and shivers and shifts of eyeballs. You know your own way and I cannot tell it for you. I can hold your hand, though, and promise to listen while you float in your own waters, while you choke down the nausea of history in your instance to see the clownfish and schools of yellowtail floating around the coral of yourself. (2003)

In the years I’ve written with groups of sexual trauma survivors, I’ve become convinced that every person has artistic brilliance in them. There hasn’t been a single person in any writing group I’ve ever facilitated who hasn’t generated work that surprises them and astonishes listeners. Not one. And this isn’t because I’m some kind of genius facilitator—this is about what happens when survivors gather to share their stories through poetry and metaphor, song and testimony.

Pat Schneider says in her book, Writing Alone and With Others, “What I believe is not what everyone believes. It is this: There is no place for hierarchies in the heart, and the making of art is a matter of the heart. Art is the creative expression of the human spirit.” Together, we who participate in these writing groups engage in the co-creation of a space that allows for risk, performance, and play. We who have been denied hearings by those in power can assist and heal ourselves and each other. There is powerful pleasure, connection, and transformation possible through the sharing of ourselves through story, and deep change occurs when we have the audacity to articulate the truths of our lives.

When we come together this way, assiduously working to remain aware and respectful of the differences among us, and share our words, we get to acknowledge our ability to create beauty—both because we listen to our own poetic phrasing and descriptions, and because others tell us what is beautiful and strong for them in the writings we offer. We hear, witness, and open (to) the beauty in ourselves and in others; we “seek[] a language that allows [us] to imagine a new world without forgetting the tragedies of the past,” as theologian Sharon Welch wrote. It’s a revolution when we, who have spent years reiterating to ourselves the lessons of ugliness learned at our abusers’ hips, are able to acknowledge splendor in ourselves.

•§•

One Monday night, several years ago, a group of writers gathered in my living room for the fourth of eight meetings of a survivors writing group. Three walked in together, laughing, having met at the front door of my apartment building. One was already here, and the others arrived soon after. My homely little living room with its tangerine-orange walls was full of conversation as the writers made their tea and gathered up plates of snacks: nuts, strawberries, baby carrots, potato chips, and dark chocolate. The tenderness, delight, and anticipation was palpable. If not for their readiness to claim trauma survivor openly, the writers would not have found themselves in this room, thrumming with the heartbeat of creative connection.

This deep connectedness doesn’t emerge in every single group—sometimes folks don’t click quite as completely; that’s a possibility for any group of people. Still, it’s not uncommon for the writers, two or three weeks in, to find their hearts broken open to one another. We find we care about each other as people. We care about each other’s histories, but even more, we care about one another’s now. Folks exchange phone numbers, offer rides to and from the subway, email each other during the week. We begin to allow ourselves to connect.

For those who have been shamed, called stupid or dull, for those taught that kindness is weakness or weapon (and what American has not been taught this?), for those who believed no one would listen, for those whose voices went dormant, for those silenced or terrorized, the steps we take together when we write, read, and respond allow us to organically unlearn old lessons, and allow our psyches to gently internalize something new, something that was always true: we have a necessary story to tell and we are enough for that telling; we deserve (and deserved) to be listened to; we have something to share; the story of our survival helps others heal and grow. Our words are necessary sustenance for ourselves, yes, and for others in our communities, too.

•§•

There is magic that happens for a survivor who sits down and writes herself to the page in stunning visions, who sits down with other survivors and reads her real self: her surviving, wondering, hungry, difficult, fragmented, gorgeous self. The writing opens up the tight fist of power and control and drops us out—the writing opens up a chasm, the writing throws over a bridge, the writing topples buildings and walls, boulders fall, steam rises, the room opens. We don’t do anything when we hear each other except bear witness, and maybe that’s all that matters. Yes, we hear and, yes, we speak our listening and, yes, we say this is where I swell when your words touch me. Yes, we listen hear want desire imagine. The pen is a vision is a dream shimmering, the oil slick silvery rainbow over the deep well of tide pool we will eventually dive into.

Writing makes a difference. Visualizing and hoping makes a difference. When we write this way, we risk becoming aware of ourselves differently. We can take the lessons we were taught, the rules and regulations of our traumatized selves, and walk through them like a ruined house of mirrors. We don’t have to be who they—the abusers, the school teachers, the boys on the bus—told us we were.

What I have learned deeply, what I have internalized through this transformative writing practice, is that there’s no such thing as “doing it right” when it comes to writing and when it comes to sex and when it comes to living in the aftermath of sexual trauma. We are infinite in our abilities, in our possibilities.

•§•

Someone said, if we don’t tell our stories, others will tell them for us, and they will get them wrong. The stories that the others tell about you will be used to build policy and pathology, will be used to build boxes to hide you in, used to build walls to close around you, used against you. If we do not tell our stories, the stories told about us will be used to our detriment.

We are a nation of subjected and silenced people. We are a nation of people trained into the difference of others as reason enough to kill them. We are a nation raised on our supremacy—America is the greatest country in the world!—and we believe it even as we see our leaders stripping away our bedsheets and clothes, snatching the food from our and our children’s mouths, tearing down our homes, thieving the books from our children’s hands and tossing it all on the bonfires of their war, tossing it all into their own furnaces, selling our labor on the open market to the highest or most connected bidder and pocketing the money themselves.

Still: We have our bodies. We have our hands and feet thighs legs arms eyes noses breasts mouths bellies chests butts foreheads fingers lips toes and yes genitals yes cunts and cocks yes, and we have our voices. We can use them to our own ends, and in service of those we love and all we believe in, rather than allowing ourselves to be deployed in service of those in power through our silence. Through this writing practice, I open to the world around me. I walk around heavily awake, I smile more amply, I touch the cats on the ledge with my eyes. I am present. I am seen and I see. I am heard. This is the opposite of dissociation. This is the practice of embodiment, the practice of resistance, the practice of freedom.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)

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book snippet: the page has room

(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From “the page has room for my incomprehensibility”:

Today I don’t want words, I want the juice of this river, I want to play in the garden. I want to plant new seeds and then listen to the neighborhood birds until the seeds throw up shoots. Some days it’s all white butterflies and green tea. Somedays it’s all the dog and her orange ball and the kids screaming at the school a block away. Some days you’ve done enough healing, it’s been years enough, and you can set something down, remove the practice barrier, the training wheels, you can roll down the window and let the air in because you’ve done enough. You’ve done enough. There are more tears to come, yes, there will be more big ache in this lifetime, but you recognize now that that’s the human condition—not only about incest, not only about recovery, just the whole life fact of this existence. We don’t stop crying and there is laughter in our eyes, the puppy sprawls at my feet in the shade. I let the sun take my shoulders to a dark brown, bake this old, oldest, tension out of muscle and bone. (2014)

The page has room for all of this, has room for my incomprehensibility, for what’s belabored, for the poetry that lives inside all my pretense. The page has room for the scars and scabs, the boll weevils, the torn leaves, the torn skin, the nonsense phrases , the bird calls, the butterfly with the wet and torn wing. The page has room for text messages and daydreams, the old fantasy and the hummingbird right now putting its green beak into the scarlet runner bean blossoms. The page has room for my wilted leaves, for the gangrenous selves, for the parts half clipped and dying, has room for what’s still to be resurrected and room for what he just could not figure out how to kill.

The page has room for as much as you can give it, and only accepts it one way: a word at a time. You can give it whatever words you want, in whatever order they arrive, but you have to stroke them out letter by letter. You give the chaotic story a bottleneck to push through and it will frame itself into a kind of sense. Write it again and the frame, the sense, will be new again. You never write yourself the same way twice. The hummingbird flies overhead—you grab it out of the air, you press its luminescent feathers and rusted-hinge song to the page. You open your eyes wide, wider, to find more of yourself existing. You are how you see. That apple tree, how the breeze reshapes its flow around you, how you eavesdrop on the conversation between those two city birds. You are the dreams you lived and the dreams you left behind. You are everything that got you here and you are here.

•§•

How does transformation happen? Minute by minute, and word by word.
As is true for so many of us, writing saved my life. I’d been trained out of the ability to be a friend, had been instructed to trust no one, did not open myself to even my most significant others. The person who knew me best in the world, during my adolescence and very young adulthood, was the man who sexually abused me, and even him I didn’t tell everything (despite his very thorough attempt to convince me that, since he could read my mind and already knew what I was thinking, it was simply a measure of my trustworthiness for me to reveal to him my every thought). The only safe place I could find was the page. I came to realize that he couldn’t get in there (nor, actually, could he get into my mind, but allowing myself to trust that fact took much longer). Finally, I had a place for all of myself to belong. I let the worry, remembering, panic, desire, sorrow, rage and fear out there. Writing helped me to figure out what I knew, what I thought, who I’d been and who I was becoming. I read Writing Down the Bones, and followed Natalie Goldberg’s instructions: freewrite every day, follow any surprising or ridiculous thought, get it all down onto the paper, don’t stop to analyze or decipher, just write, just write, just write. The practice became exercise and meditation, and a process of recreation and resurrection.

•§•

They say—those voices of writerly authority—that we should write what we know. But sometimes what we know is denial and silence. What we know is discord. What we know is our words squelched or torn from our throats.

So we write what we know, and we write our “unknown”—that which is uncertain, hazy, confusing, diffusely remembered, unrooted in us. Write what you don’t know, or what you don’t know yet. Write what you think or imagine or wonder. Write your certainties and your fears. Write what unknowing feels like. We need a language for what it’s like not to know what one’s own body has done or been put through. Write the fuzziness and numbness. Write the cycling of emotions. Write exactly what happened—what you know happened and what you don’t know happened. Write the uncertain as if you were absolutely clear, and then write it full of questions and confusion. Write it grammatically incorrect, as it exists within your body and memory: confusions, fragmented, broken, metaphorical.

•§•

As young children, if we are lucky, we are taught by those who love us to listen to our instinct, intuition, curiosities—to listen to our “gut.” We need guidance and encouragement to heed that deep inside wisdom, though, and most often, even for those of us not abused, the process of growing up means learning to ignore our intuition. We are taught to do what others expect from us, what makes others comfortable or happy. If we are female, we’re taught to act small, get quiet, and stuff our voices down while baring our bodies for the viewing and approval of others; if we are male, we’re taught to get loud and big, force our voice into a room, take what we want and stuff our emotions down. If we are genderqueer, well, we’re mostly just taught to disappear. We are—all of us—taught that what other people think of us is more important than what we think of ourselves. And we are taught that being ourselves, if that self is at odds with the expectations of our community or those in power, can get us hurt. Our survival instinct kicks in and teaches us how to follow, even if following chafes.

In the workshops I talk about what it means to come back into a relationship of trust with our intuition, that small quiet voice inside that has always wanted to lead us in the right direction but that we were trained or forced to ignore, especially if we were children of violent homes. It didn’t matter that there was something inside us screaming, No, stop, let’s get out of this situation, let’s get away from this person! If we live with our abusers, we can’t leave, at least not physically, most of the time. We are forced to turn our attentions outward—to focus on the smallest nuances of a parent’s or abuser’s mood, voice, actions, so that we can get a sense of their emotional state and thereby hope to keep ourselves a little more safe. We learn how to read their tone of voice when they call us to dinner, learn how the evening is going to unfold by the way they shut the door when they come into the house. We give so much attention to the violent or unstable people around us, and we turn our attention away from the voice inside that knows what goodness and brilliance we’re capable of. We have to ignore that voice if we want to be safe.

I’ve used writing as one way back into a relationship with my intuition. And part of that practice, for me, has been writing messily, taking risks, following whatever thread is pulling at me. I write the words that call themselves forward, even if they make no logical sense, even if I’m confused by where they’re going, even if I’m scared or feel stupid about what I’m writing. Maybe I just hear syllables or nonsense words—write them. Maybe there’s a phrase that wants out that I don’t understand—I have to write it; otherwise those words or sounds just keep repeating themselves until I do.

This is a languaging of trauma, the real world’s song, with its own grammars and choruses. Repeat what bears repeating, and then rewrite the rest. Follow your instinct, and let your pen guide you.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)

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book snippet: how to restory

(Good morning, good morning! While I’m away, I wanted to share with you some pieces from my book, Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, which is coming out next month! I’ll post one of these a week, on Friday mornings. Be easy with you, ok? And please keep writing…)

Cover of Writing Ourselves Whole book, the view of a small island from a wooden deck, you can see the edge of the deck, water, and a green island in the distance. The title reads Writing Ourselves Whole: Using the Power of Your Own Creativity to Recover and Heal from Sexual Trauma, Jen Cross.From “introduction: how to restory”

I started journaling in 1993, when I was twenty-one years old and breaking away from my stepfather after nearly ten years of ongoing sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. As often as I could, I took refuge in local café, where I bought a large, dark roast coffee, and popped a tape into my portable cassette player—Ani DiFranco, Erasure, Zap Mama, The Crystal Method—slid my headset over my ears, folded the notebook open to a new page, uncapped my pen, wrote things I thought I’d never be able to say out loud. I spent years doing this, my butt planted in a wooden chair in some coffee house or other in Northern New England or around San Francisco. This is the way I found my tongue again. I wrote through the numbness that kept me protected—through writing I could feel the sadness, despair, depression, rage. The emotions had a weight and a shape once they found their way into words, whereas, inside me, they had all tangled together into a single inarticulate mass. There were few days I didn’t break through into tears while I bent over my notebook at that corner table in the back of the cafe.
In the earliest months of my writing practice, I was often rigidly and “logically” truthful. I froze often during my writing sessions, straining hard to get every detail right so my stepfather could not accuse me of lying (should he ever come to read what I wrote—and, of course, I assumed he would; up to that point, he’d had access to every single aspect of my being). I wanted to compile a record of his atrocities, and was beginning the work of disentangling my feelings from the so-called psychoanalytical brainwashing that was a core component of his control over me, my sister, and my mother. If he ever made good on his threat to have me killed for leaving his bed, I believed someone would find this notebook and finally know who I really was. In those early years, as much as for any other reason, I wrote to survive my death in the form of a final, true story. I had told so many lies—I wanted someone, in the end, to know What Really Happened.

I wanted friends and former lovers and family to read the story that explained me: this is why I was so sexually experienced so young; this is why I’d be locked in the bathroom of my dorm room on the phone with my stepfather for hours; this is why I had rabid mood swings; this is why I was such an erratic friend; this is why I disappeared. Oh, this was why Jen was so crazy all the time. This is what she was dealing with.
After a year or so of “just” writing, I managed to get into individual therapy. I participated in groups for women who were incest survivors. I spent hours wandering around my small college town, listening to music and crying. I drank too much, watched too much bad television, spent uncountable hours reading books about incest, feminism, sex. But it was when I sat alone at the Dirt Cowboy Cafe in that small town in New Hampshire, one hand affixed to a big mug of French Roast coffee and the other hand moving a pen across the page, that things—life, loss, longing—slowed down and unraveled enough for me to be able to breathe a little better.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg said we should take two years focused only on writing practice before we tried to write for publication, so that we could learn the contours of our minds, our inner selves. I couldn’t imagine wasting all that time just journaling. Two whole years? Is she kidding?

I look up today and it’s been over twenty.

They weren’t relaxing, those hours with my journal. This was not a hobby or dalliance. I was learning to save my life. Writing came to be a way for me to be safely but intensely present with myself and with the world around me. Through writing, first and foremost, I (re)learned what it meant to be human.

•§•

This is the writing practice that has worked for me: write daily (or as near as possible), create open space for the words, keep the pen moving, don’t let the censor/abuser stop the flow of words (sometimes I write down the censor/abuser’s objections, when I can stomach it, just to get them out of the way), and follow the writing wherever it seems to want to go.
“Following the writing” means listening to the tug that wants me to write about my childhood dog or that moment of feeling triggered when I thought I was going to finally get to write about the sex I had last weekend. It means writing exactly the words that pop into my head—those first, often nonsensical thoughts—and trusting them, even if I can’t see where they’re leading. It means writing, word by word, into the terrifying places, always going slowly, listening to the deep wisdom of psyche that tells me when we are ready to go in and nudges me when we are ready to ease back out. I drop my pen to the page and go, trusting that I won’t be the same on the other side. French feminist Hélène Cixous, in her brilliant essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” wrote, “When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love.” That’s what I mean.

When I started journaling in cafes back in the early ’90s, I wrote fast and messy. Fast, because I wanted to catch those first thoughts as they came to me. There was no time to slow down—I needed to grab the thought and get it on the page right away because the stepfather in my head was sure to contradict, challenge, or change it. I learned to catch those thoughts and write them, too. I wanted all of it on the page, so I could look back at it later, so I could record all the madness in my head, so I didn’t have to be all alone with this overwhelm anymore. The page could help me hold it. I wrote messily so that I could write anywhere—in public, at the coffee shop—without worrying that the people around me could easily read over my shoulder. I was afraid of being found out, yet I couldn’t write at my apartment. Home wasn’t a safe place, no matter that the physical danger lived 1,400 miles away. At the cafe, I couldn’t hear the phone ringing, reminding me that he was (I feared) never going to stop monitoring me, never going to stop harassing me, never going to let me live my life away from him in peace.

I had a whirlwind in my head. I wanted to get it all down before I forgot, or lost the thread, or lost my nerve, before he came to take me back. I was sure he was going to track me down and make me go back.
In order to concentrate on writing, I needed noise outside to counteract all the noise inside, to soothe my hyperarousal and an overdeveloped startle response, to get to what Stephen King calls “the basement place” out of which to imagine and create. I needed a crowded cafe, loud music in my headphones, and my back to a wall, face toward the door. No one was going to sneak up on me while I wrote this history, while I wrote into the contours of my trauma. It took a great deal of effort and energy to be able to focus my attention at all. I wrote stream-of-consciousness (I have whole notebooks that are run-on sentences), fragments, flash images, and filled the page with shout-and-scribble when I was too angry to form words at all.

Over time, by following the thread of my writing right into the now, the now became a place that’s safer for me to inhabit while I’m writing, even without all the distraction. Slowly, over these years of writing practice, I have come to be able to write even with no headphones on, no longer terrified of my startle response, no longer afraid of something bad happening to me when I get lost in the words.

(Thank you for reading, and for your words today…)

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What we attend to, what we love

butterflytree_smGood morning, good morning. It’s dark and warm outside my Oakland city window this morning. We’re having a heat wave in the middle of winter, which is all fine and good until the reservoirs run out of water. My candle is lit and the coffee (decaf, but still) is brewing. This morning I woke steady and restless, ready to write and also wanting to burrow down under the covers for another several hours’ sleep. Do you get like that when there’s too much to do and you want to do all of it at one time?

I want to apologize for being absent here. These days I am doing a lot of other writing, mostly (as you may have noticed!) away from the blog. I spend my morning-pages in the notebook, and then open one of several book projects and get to work at editing. Last year I generated hundreds of pages of material for these different projects; I’m now wading through those words, reading to see what I’ve got, how much of it makes sense, and what more needs to be added.

This poem is my mantra these days. I’m working mostly offline on writing tasks that need more than a single sitting to generate, shifting myself away from the fragmented immediacy of social media, including the blog. I have created a writing schedule, and am allowing myself to focus in and deep — because, well, let me tell you a secret:

Although I love and believe in and will continue the writing groups, what I always really wanted to be was a writer. First and foremost.

They say what you attend to reveals what you love. I set forth an intention, in this new year, to attend more to my writing. I have four projects I’m actively attending to these days: Sex Still Spoken Here, the Erotic Reading Circle anthology (which I’m co-editing with Amy Butcher and Carol Queen); a book of essays and prompts for trauma survivors (and others!) who want to use writing to heal and transform; a novel about three sisters who have to learn how to relate to and trust other (and the rest of the world) as grown women in the aftermath of their stepfather’s abuse during their adolescence; and a collection of short pieces from the Coming Home project (about reembodying our erotic self after sexual trauma). There are others, too: a couple of ebooks about transformative writing practice; collection of things that might be called poems (but I would never be so presumptions as to call them that); a gathering up of the pieces I’ve written and performed recently about femme; and, naturally, new novel.

It’s a lot.

Plus, there are blog posts to write and edit (especially for the extra:ordinary project), emails, articles, letters of recommendation. There’re book and writing group proposals. There’s writing to read and respond to for my manuscript group, and workshop sessions to prepare for. There’s writing all around me, all the time. I am immersed. If you’ve contacted me recently and haven’t heard back, it’s because I’m deep in the aftermath of finally deciding that I need to get my work out into the world. This intention takes as much attention as I can give it, since there are still those voices in me that want me not to forget that I’m a fraud and a laughing stock, not to mention a terrible writer, and should take my fingers off the keyboard and go back to what I’m good at, which is helping other people get their work out into the world. Period.

So I go slow, and I focus. I don’t talk about the various writing projects very much, except to give their barest descriptions, until I’m well on my way toward completion. The more I talk about a story or essay or book, the more I lose creative steam for its writing. It’s as though, if I talk the story out, I’ve accomplished what writing would accomplish: putting the words into the world. So I keep the tension inside, and let it emerge through the pen and keys.

These days I’m often offline — after several hours writing and editing, the dog will need to go outside, and I have to shift to another way of being in the world. We go for a run, we go to the beach or up to the hills, we move our bodies. I spend time with people I love. I check email just once or twice a day. This is a good balance for me. I breathe deep, I stretch and move, I read, I cuddle. I sleep, wake early, light the candle, and begin again.

What are you attending to this year? What would it mean to give something you love, something that maybe you have been neglecting, more of your attention? Are you getting ready to believe that you deserve what you love, what has drawn itself to you in this lifetime? Rumi said, “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” What if you believed that for ten minutes today? What would that mean for your writing, or your life? Give yourself some space with this idea in your notebook, and let the words draw you someplace surprising…

Thank you for being here with me, for reading these words, and for all you share with the world. Thank you for the generosity of your attention. Thank you for your words.

 

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your own private retreat

Good morning to you, and happy June! It’s grey and coolish out my window this morning; a little respite from the heat we’ve been enjoying here in Oakland. How is this Monday morning meeting you?

Happy LGBT Pride Month, my friends. No matter your sexual orientation, you can participate in honoring those queer folks who have struggled and fought back against the forces of fear, oppression and normalization, helping to create a world in which we have far greater freedom around eros, desire, gender expression and family structure. Of course we still have a long way to go — just because we celebrate Pride doesn’t mean that the struggle is over. But I’m still going to invite you to bring a little (more) queer into your life this month. What would that look like?

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This weekend I made myself a writing retreat. For the better part of Saturday and Sunday both, I turned off the phone, kept away from email, grabbed a stack of books and dove into my current writing project (how trauma survivors can use writing practice for individual– and then communal–transformation). At the end of the weekend, I’d generated 150+ pages of new (hand)written work.

What do I want to say about this? This weekend I was quiet. I said no to a lot of other things I could have been doing — I didn’t join friends at birthday gatherings or at the pool. I sat in my dark apartment with the shades pulled to keep the cool inside, and I wrote.

I dove into the sort of silence that I need to let complicated writing emerge. I’d write for an hour or so at a time, then took breaks — made small meals, read, ran around Lake Merritt. There was time enough to listen to the rhythms my writing wanted me to follow — time to keep going after the timer went off — time to walk around the neighborhood when I had some difficult theme to try and untangle. I wrote early morning and I wrote nighttime. I pretended like I was away on an official writing retreat, out in the woods, say, with no internet connection.

It was deeply productive, and I’m wondering if I can’t schedule this sort of retreat now once a month (I’ll certainly need at least a weekend for the transcription of all these notebooks’-worth of writing). It did require scheduling (over a month in advance), and some fierce self-care/willpower/determination to protect that time for writing. And then, once I had created the space for myself, it was up to me to use it well: I could easily have justified going to a movie or an hours-long bike ride or a wade into the public library looking for just the right book. And any one of those might have been fine during another retreat weekend. But this weekend what I had intended was to fill at least one notebook with new material for my book, which meant I needed to sit down and engage in the physical labor of writing. By Saturday afternoon I was fatigued, and realized I was in the middle of a kind of writing marathon. I generally write for, at most, thirty minutes at a stretch, and here I was keeping the hand moving for an hour or more. Let’s be real: this was a working retreat. My right wrist is tender today!

I was afraid I wouldn’t want to come back into the world when the weekend was over: there’s a pile of email to respond to now, there’s a workshop to prepare for, there’s this immediate, workaday world that would like some attention. I was afraid I’d get lost in the gorgeous, wandery, generative place, and that I’d be frustrated at having to return to the life that requires focus and schedule. Does this make sense? There have been years when I didn’t want to go on vacation, because I knew I’d just barely get relaxed and then I’d have to come back to my regular (stress-filled and overwhelming) life — I’d get depressed, miserable that this sort of relaxed life existed and I didn’t get to spend any time there. Nevermind that my life was overloaded because of my own choices; I didn’t want to have to engage with my choices, or have to say no to anyone. It was easier for me to be miserable than to think about changes that might make others uncomfortable.

But I woke up this morning early, worked on the book for about a half hour, and then went out with the puppy for her morning playtime. I still feel the urgency of the book project, but don’t feel resentful that I can’t spend all day there. I’m grateful to be back in a boundaried/scheduled place with the project, actually. It’s fantastic to create the space to unfold the whole thing around me and see what I’ve got so far and generate as much as possible in a short timespan — and today, after a productive and nourishing retreat, I’m ready to be back in my usual, work-week routine.

Do you find yourself longing for a serious block of writing time? What would it take for you to create your own writing retreat? Could you sign up for a workshop with someone else? Could the kids go to a friend’s or relative’s place for the day/weekend? Do you have friends who have a cabin/vacation home that you could borrow for a day or two? A writing retreat doesn’t have to be an expensive or onerous undertaking — we can create this space for ourselves, and those who love us want to help our writing emerge into the world. The first thing we have to (get to) do is say yes to this desire, the next thing we have to (get to) do is ask, and then we get to show up into what we’ve asked for, and do the work.

Thanks for the ways you hold and honor others’ creative genius. Thanks for the space you make to honor your own. Thanks for your presence today, and thank you for your words.