Tag Archives: writing ourselves whole

claim our own complicated truths

graffiti - calligraphy outline of a candleGood morning good morning — it’s a tired morning over here. The puppy, who has been sick, is curled up in the middle of three pillows, sighing. I’ve got Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig” churning and dancing through me this morning: My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely light. Today I am feeling these lines especially poignantly.

I would like to share with you everything that is happening around these parts, this side of the street, around Jen & writing ourselves whole both, but there aren’t words for all of it. At least not words I’ve found yet. I’m in a place of invention just now, though, so maybe new words can arrive, alliterate and at the ready.

There was something I wanted to tell you this morning, but the red lentil hummus is calling to me, wanting me to make sure it doesn’t burn, and there’s writing to offer feedback to, and a candle flame to watch dancing. In total this week I have four workshops and one performance — plus a day job and a personal life. That’s my burning at both ends. I keep breathing. I hug the puppy, do some situps, some pushups, I listen to what my body wants to eat, and try to feed it that. I can’t always manage to meet the exact craving, but I’m coming closer most days. How about that?

(Plus, of course, it’s the bleeding time, which means that everything is especially poignant just now. Hallmark ad over on evite? We are go for tears, thank you very much.)

There’s writing I want to share with you from last night’s Write Whole session, but it’s some difficult writing about my mother, who I know reads this blog sometimes (though not often), and so I am feeling worried about how she will meet the words. I’ll post this write eventually, maybe even soon, but for now I want to write about the work that can be involved in writing and sharing our true story. We’ve been beginning to talk about this question/struggle in the Dive Deep workshop — how do we claim what’s true for us and also honor those we love or care about who we fear will be hurt by our words (or, too, sometimes, without incurring a lawsuit)? This is about learning to trust our writing voices, and gut instincts, and so this is important.

As much as possible, I write my own truth in my journals and in first drafts, if nowhere else. It is true, however, that there have been stretches when even there I don’t claim my own honesty — when I am afraid that just letting the truth out anywhere outside my body, allowing any of my cells to lay claim to it, will be too apocalyptic. Those are not generally good times for me, but they happen, and what I have learned is that I just have to go through the difficult and necessary work of rewriting myself back toward my gut instincts, my complicated truths, my own stories, the ones that live outside the mouths of other people, that live behind the damp teeth of all my own inside mouths.

But mostly — mostly — notebook-writing and first drafts (and even workshop writes) are for the messy and honest story-telling, a place where I train myself to follow the thread of whatever I’m writing, even into places that other people might have trouble with (and for folks with even a shred of codependency, this can be a struggle. I myself have slightly more than a thread — more like one of those thick steamboat ropes-worth — and so this takes work and practice). When I let myself honor my true stories, then I learn more about the writing, I can go deeper, I can unearth and shove onto the page more difficult, complicated, layered tellings. This, in my experience, makes for better writing. I have, often often often, stopped my pen mid-sentence, afraid of what my stepfather, partner, father, mother, sister, friend would think or have to say about my side of the story, my understanding, my experience. I would argue with them in my head, struggle, go get more coffee, pick up the pen again. I began to just let myself write whatever it was I thought they might say to me — he would say that I was selfish and a tease, but that’s not what happened, and here’s why. Sometimes, letting those other arguments down onto the page just led me down deeper into the work.

In her book Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider writes:

As a young writer I talked to author Elizabeth O’Connor about my
work. There were things about which I could not write. I would “hurt”
my mother. My husband “might not like it.” She replied gently, “It sounds to me like there are a lot of absentee landlords of your soul.”

This is crucial: If you are to write, you must move out of “rented
rooms” in your mind, rooms that you have allowed to belong to someone
else. It will (usually) not happen overnight. But you can begin at any time
to be free. You must own yourself, have no “absentee landlords.”
This does not mean you run roughshod over other people’s feelings or
other people’s privacy. There are ways to protect others and still be free[…]. Remember that your first draft—which is absolutely essential—
is private. You can write anything that comes and “fix it” later.

Once you have the free flow of a full first draft on the page, you can do
the necessary editing to protect others, to protect yourself. But if you
worry about other people as you write a first draft, you will not be able to
free your unconscious mind to give up its treasures. It will be bound by
the great dogs of your fear, by “ought” and “should” and the internalized
voices of those whose lives intersect your own.

For first-draft writing, claim everything as your own. (pp. 11-12)

This is the only prompt I have for today: Just for today, let yourself write your own true story, no matter what anyone else might think about it. Take 10 minutes. What truth feels difficult today? Can you let it breathe between your fingers and the pen, let it rest on the page in all it’s complexity?

Thanks for that, and for this. Thanks for your being right where you are. Thanks for your words.

As a young writer I talked to author Elizabeth O’Connor about my

work. There were things about which I could not write. I would “hurt”

my mother. My husband “might not like it.” She replied gently, “It sounds

to me like there are a lot of absentee landlords of your soul.”

This is crucial: If you are to write, you must move out of “rented

rooms” in your mind, rooms that you have allowed to belong to someone

else. It will (usually) not happen overnight. But you can begin at any time

to be free. You must own yourself, have no “absentee landlords.”

This does not mean you run roughshod over other people’s feelings or

other people’s privacy. There are ways to protect others and still be free

(see chapter 9). Remember that your first draft—which is absolutely essential—

is private. You can write anything that comes and “fix it” later.

Once you have the free flow of a full first draft on the page, you can do

the necessary editing to protect others, to protect yourself. But if you

worry about other people as you write a first draft, you will not be able to

free your unconscious mind to give up its treasures. It will be bound by

the great dogs of your fear, by “ought” and “should” and the internalized

voices of those whose lives intersect your own.

For first-draft writing, claim everything as your own.

one thing everyday (again, again)

photo of a swimming pool taken through the windows above, looking down on the water and "8ft" marker on the side

time to jump in!

Happy Friday, all!  It’s kind of loud here in San Rafael today, comparatively at least — lots of truck or engine noise since about 5am, but can’t tell what’s going on. Why am I telling you this? I just like to share where I am.

Spent the first part of my writing time doing some journaling in the notebook, which feels good to have time for. I like the more organic, integrating kind of writing that I do in the notebook, with a pen. My horoscopes keep telling me to make time to integrate all that’s been happening (and, being a Pisces, it’s imperative that I pay attention to my horoscopes.)

It’s been a full, admin-y week here; what about for you? Are you ready for your weekend?

It’s a challenging thing, determining what weekend means when you’ve got your own business — or, at least, that’s true for me. I spend 8 hours a day, three days a week, at a day-job, and then I spend the rest of my time, hours before and after work at the day job, the other two days of the work week, and often, weekend time, too) focusing on writing ourselves whole. The workshops are always on my mind — I’m returning emails, making phone calls, dealing with money stuff, researching grants, prepping for workshops,  facilitating workshops, getting the word out about upcoiming workshops, and making lists of what else needs doing. So many of you know this already: when you’re starting a business/organization, you do all the jobs. You’re the admin person and the outreach person and the fund-raising/grants person and the programs person. All those jobs have to find their place in your time somewhere, and often that means in the evenings or weekends. The workshops become what I think about, almost all the time. In the back of my mind, continually, is a running list, this inside voice, asking: did I call that person back yet? did I return that inquiry? when’s the deadline for that proposal?  have I heard back from that organization yet?

It’s easy to get somewhat (!) overwhelmed. And so it is that my downtime can look really down, really quiet, really dis-engaged: some tv or a bad movie, time to spend some hours reading a novel, or even applesauce-making. These sorts of activities let my brain go quiet, let some other sorts of thinking happen, let new solutions and ideas bubble up and around without my trying to force them out or onto a list or into structure before they’re ready. Time when I’m not racing from one appointment to the next is so necessary — time to really slow down, time to break, integrate, even play.

What I’m grateful for is all the conversation now about self care, about making space for rest and rejuvenation, for integration and replenishment. When I don’t make that space for myself, I get manic, overwhelmed, and soon decide that the real next best ting for me to do is leave everything and go off to an isolated house on the coast of Mexico and just write and fish. Someday maybe that’ll be what I do — but I’d prefer to have it be intentional rather than an extreme reaction to being on people-overload and just needing some downtime.

The place where I still struggle is in the ways that I take care of my body. I don’t exercise enough, and so I make intentions about yoga or jogging or swimming, and then I get frantic (or realistic, depending) about money and/or time, and then I don’t sign up for classes and I don’t do what I know would be so good for my mental health: moving. this. body.

And so I make a commitment here to go swimming once next week. I can write to you next Friday and tell you how it was. (I’ve added a reminder on my Google calendar!)

Fresh! and I were talking last night about that wonderful encouragement from Eleanor Roosevelt, that we ought to do one thing every day that scares us. And Fresh! has been working with folks on a daily-practice coaching program, where folks get witness and regular coaching as they take on a new task, a new daily practice, or start doing regularly something that’s scared them. Joining a gym or taking a yoga or dance class or swimming: these things can be scary for me! As much as I know I will feel so good after, I get scared about doing the moves wrong or not being limber enough or looking bad in my swim suit or whatever other thing is fizzling against my desire and drive to try and put it out and keep me in my inertia.

One thing, everyday: I’ve used that phrase to continue to commit to and grow writing ourselves whole.  And I can use it, too, to continue to commit to and grow my own self care.

A prompt, of sorts: Is there something that really has been scaring you that you also really want to do or try? Could you give yourself about 10 minutes today to write about that?

Thank you for your writing, for the ways you’ll be kind to folks today, for being there.

that doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human

multicolored graffiti that reads, "Developing a voice"

Developing a voice... (click on the image to see more of Cassidy Curtis's pictures)

Thursday is a VozSutra day, talking about the practice of voice.

This morning I woke up when the alarm went off at 5.24, but then hung around in bed for another half hour, sleeping and wrangling with getting up — thinking of lines of poetry.  The only one I can remember now is something about the bright eyes in our vaginas, or the bright vaginas in our eyes. I think it was the latter.

I dreamt of writing a thoughtful-yet-blistering post to facebook (dear god, it’s time for a break when I start dreaming about facebook! that’s terrible!) about transguys taking their shirts off in public. There’d been a whole bunch of photos in a row, guys posting about what they’d done that weekend, and look, I got to take off my shirt, now that I got my surgery and look, you can’t even see the scars, and it was so nice to feel the sun on my chest, finally — and I was just livid, because of the willingness to do this, to share this celebration with all of their female-bodied compatriots who would have been cited or arrested at the same events if they’d taken their own damn shirts off without putting fucking stickers or tape (or something else painful to remove) over their nipples. (It may have been that I had exactly this feeling at Oakland Pride this weekend — just maybe.) Livid because of the willingness, too, on the part of some transguys, to say that transitioning has nothing to do with male privilege. And yet those photographs, that experience, in this country: male privilege. In the dream, F! was worried, didn’t want me to be too something — and so I was thoughtfully crafting this message that wasn’t too angry, but was still clear and a bit angry, but didn’t make anyone uncomfortable, and…as you can imagine, I didn’t get the damn thing posted before I woke up.

What’s this about — this fear of just saying what we think, when we, at the same time, think someone else will be offended.  As female folk (and even here I freeze — is it just female folk? am I being too gender-essentialist?) we’re socialized to be polite and cautious about what we say: don’t lead anyone on, don’t upset anyone. And so we grow up learning to swallow so many things, in so many different ways — we learn how not to speak the things that will upset someone. You know all this already.  The question is, how to unlearn that swallowing.  How to spit it back up and out?

Writing is a help, for me — putting it down on the page, in a notebook, in a thick messy scrawl, with as much intention and emotion as necessary. I remind myself that I don’t have to share it with anyone, and for a very long time, I didn’t. I just kept on going to the cafe, ordering my large bowl of french roast coffee and sitting in the back corner or up front, by the window, just writing in the notebook — trying to figure out how to get it all down, how to say it all the way it felt in my body.

And then, little by little, I started sharing this writing voice with others — at work, at organizing meetings, at open mics, through characters in stories that found their way into anthologies, and then, lo and behold, just in conversation with my lovers and friends. And it’s still a struggle.  It’s a struggle to say something that I know will upset or offend somebody, it’s a struggle not to waver with kind of, I think, don’t you? or try to give voice to every side of an issue at the same time — everyone likes you if you don’t take a clear side, is what I’ve learned, if you just kind of look like you’re leaning toward their side when you’re talking to them. That’s a skill girls learn, I think, and maybe some boys too, something trauma survivors learn, over and over: the ways not to appear a threat, not to appear to have a mind of our own, not to say something that will set someone else off.

I understand the ways that using caution around voice is a self-protective mechanism. And I hold within me the aftermath: that choking, that wishy-washiness, that unreasonable (for me) terror that upsetting someone else means my physical safety is threatened.

For many years, I literally could not have an debate or argument about something I felt strongly about — I’d get so angry, and afraid, too, that I just couldn’t speak, couldn’t find the words I wanted; my mind just went blank. I despaired of ever being able to articulate, extemporaneously, my feelings about, say, violence against women, or rape in movies, or incest anywhere, or queer assimilation or… and, of course, I’d be talking to people who could remain dispassionate about their opinion, which we at my undergraduate institution were supposed to be learning how to do. But how do I stay unemotional about battery and intimate partner violence? Who would want to? Why keep the facade of objectivity, when there just isn’t any such thing as a non-subjective perspective or viewpoint?

I could, of course, easily preach to the converted, and maybe that helped.  The writing, and the talking with folks who shared, and added to/expanded, my feelings and politics and analysis on a particular subject. Listening to other folks talk, folks who could both embody emotion and clearly navigate complex terrain, also inspired me to believe that it was possible to do.

And these morning blogs are another part of that practice –to write what I’m thinking into the computer without too much forethought or editing, sometimes even just stating an opinion without apology: the gall. I learn to be willing to be wrong, learn that it’s not the end of the world if I change or grow, complicate, my opinion. That doesn’t make me a stupid girl: that makes me human.

So, here’s a prompt: Is there something you’re really upset about or affected by right now, something you’d like to find the words to articulate? Can you give yourself 20 minutes in the notebook with that today, letting yourself not make sense, not complete your sentences, get really angry or sad, if you want, or even contradict yourself… this isn’t for anyone else. This is writing work, and it’s your own powerful practice.

Thank you so much for being there, for reading — and for your writing!

vozsutra: who have you become, to be thinking about this

street art -- silhouettes of swallows, painted black on white brick, flying around, maybe out of a cage

(all the images on the blog are clickable, linked to their source -- this one comes from a graffiti blog based in the UK)

Ok — so I found out yesterday that writing ourselves whole didn’t get a grant from Horizons that we applied for. Today I’m disappointed but not knocked down — could it have something to do with not feeling so isolated, not so alone in the work? I’m grateful, today, for all the folks I get to work with in building writing ourselves whole to something sustainable and stronger.

Here’s exciting news — last night we ate the first of our own tomatoes with our dinner.  Deep orange like a peach but with tomato flesh, and still warm from the vine.  The first my-home-grown tomato I’ve had since I lived in Maine: I mixed it in with the guacamole, and it was so good.


Today’s a VozSutra day: a practice of voice day.  I’ve got a little bit for writing time, then I need to head into town and be at the office for a bit before the MedEd writers workshop at UCSF. After the afternoon’s work, the Mr. and I might even get to spend some time at the ocean. Maybe I should wear my bathing suit under the work clothes; it’s supposed to be hot again today.

Did you do some thinking yesterday about what you’d write if you didn’t have to be good?  What did you come up with? I love the writing that comes up in response to Mary Oliver’s poem — I imagine any writing you did in response to this prompt was risky and challenging.  Thank you for that!


Last night I spent quite awhile editing the piece I’d workshopped earlier this summer at the Writing as a Healing Art conference.  The conference organizers have joined with the folks at University of California Press, and UCP is putting out a volume of the writing produced or workshopped during the conference. The piece I submitted is fiction, drawn heavily from my own life, and focuses on two sisters who experience awful sexual trauma and psychological manipulation and control at the hands of their mother’s second husband — right now it’s a short piece, 30 pages or so, and I’ve excerpted 6 to submit.  I have an idea of the longer work, how it could come together into a book. It’s also a terribly hard story for me to write, and so I’ll get a little bit out (3 or 7 or 12 pages) and then I’m done with it for 6 months or a year, til I’m ready to write the next part.

I want to show how folks experience trauma change from the people they were Before to the people they were After, Later. I want to capture that moment of transition, transformation — the moments of decision: how is it that, just yesterday, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to do or say this thing, but today it’s become a part of my normal?

It’s easy to pathologize victims of trauma (and it’s easy because it’s safer for the pathologizers, for the rest of society — if we make this an individual’s problem, then we don’t have to deal with the wider ramifications of power and control or hierarchy or oppression). It’s easy to paste PTSD over someone’s face and then go to work trying to resituate that person to “normalcy” — which means getting that person to a place where they can be a ‘contributing member’ of our capitalist society (and/or back to the front, if we’re talking about the military*).

What I’ve wanted for some time is to be able to write the story of a long-term trauma, which involves both decisions and actions on the part of the perpetrator, and decisions and actions on the part of those being traumatized — not decisions to be abused, but decisions around survival, strategizings and navigations from moment to moment, day to day.  Over time, those strategizings change, because the ground is always moving: the perpetrator is never satisfied with what he’s already been able to do, he wants to do something more. Suddenly you’re deciding, deciding, not what you want to do with your friends after school but whether today is a good day to ‘let’ the person abusing you do this or that, or whether you think can put it off for one more day. Who have you become, to be thinking about this?  How did you get to this place?

Maybe more selfishly, I want you to know what that experience is like, that going from who you thought you were going to become to someone your earlier self would never, never recognize as you. I don’t like to be alone here.


Stay hydrated today — it’s supposed to be hot hot again.  Be easy with you today, and I’ll work to do the same.  Thanks so much for all the incredible work you do… whatever you’re doing to be you: thank you.
*This is a side note, but I want to try to write it: I read earlier this week about research going on at th UCSF VA with military folks to try and figure out how to prevent PTSD. The more I think about this, the more terrifying it is: PTSD is a healthy-brain’s response to horror and trauma. A military that has been trained out of the capacity to respond with horror to war is more frightening than I have words for. PTSD is an awful, awful thing to have to deal with, and the best way to prevent it in the military is not to send people to war. In my estimation, the best way to prevent PTSD is not to torture, brutalize, traumatize, harm others: not children, not intimate partners, not friends, not people you think have less power than you, not ‘enemies.’

what resilience and growth look like

femme conference 2010 -- logo and dates! August 20-22 in OaklandGood morning!  Today is Friday and according to my post schedule-thinking that I did earlier this week, I should/could be talking about writing ourselves whole in general, as a business. WOW-biz or something. It’s going to be a quick post this morning, ’cause I’ve got to get in the shower and get ready for FemmeCon, though, so here’s what I want to say about the business of running a business — I can’t believe that it’s something I’m doing.

For many (many) years, my main work-related goal was to have the easiest possible taxes; my only goal was to be able to file a, what’s that called, an EZ form every April, or to not have to even file the form because I didn’t have anything new or interesting to tell the government about my financial situation.  Now I’ve got this thing that I’m doing for love and for part of my livelihood, and I’m working toward having it be all of my livelihood, this writing, workshopping and talking about all of it.

I’ve been in the midst of this organic growing process (or not growing so much, often), and this year I’ve taken a number of major leaps toward having writing ourselves whole be all of what I do with my work life/time: first, applying to Intersection for the Arts’ Incubator project — as a part of the Intersection Incubator, I get to be fiscally sponsored, which means I’m sort of in this excellent inbetween land of nonprofit and not, where I can have access to grants only available to nonprofits and can accept tax-deductible donations, and also continue to do other social entrepreneurial work, grassroots work — that is, not be tied to the nonprofit model. I’m grateful to Intersection for the opportunity to participate in this amazing program, and also to my friend and colleague and role model, Peggy Simmons of Green Windows Writing Groups as well, who investigated and participated in Intersection’s Incubator program first, and shares continually of her wisdom, her learning, her ideas.

The second thing that’s happening right now is that I’m asking for help. It’s not that I haven’t had a lot of help over the last eight years with these workshops — from workshop participants and friends and colleagues passing the word about the workshops, folks offering space to hold workshops in, making donations, coming out and helping to publicize fundraising events, sharing prompt ideas, and so much more. What’s happening now is a little bit different: I’ve hopped off the “I’m doing this all by myself” train. As I begin to work with Lou Vaile and with Jianda Monique (of SugarMama PR!), and possibly others too (!), I will have grown writing ourselves whole out past the bounds of my own, individual capacity — it’s going to be at a place where I can no longer return to doing all the work myself. (Note that I haven’t been doing all the work myself for awhile — My Mr. helps so much, even when I’m weird about it, and then there’s so much that’s just not getting done.) So that’s exciting and terrifying and I can’t wait and I also want to, a little part of me wants to, just go back to 8 years ago when there was just one workshop and I was just getting started and that’s all I was doing.  But that’s not the way the work works — humans grow and like to expand and learn. Here we go!

What else do I want to tell you?  Today I’m doing a workshop at FemmeCon for femme survivors called Wild Geese  — yep, after the poem by Mary Oliver. One of the things I hope we’ll get to explore is this intersection of identities: femininity (however we wear/live it) and survivor (however that rings true for us).  For me, these identities inflect each other powerfully, and an enormous part of my struggle with returning to/reclaiming a ‘girl’ identity was the fact that, for me, ‘girl’ was entirely born up with victim, vulnerable, powerless. My girl identity and my girl body (and I love that I think of  Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha‘s amazing piece, “gonna get my girl body back” in Brazen Femme, everytime I think the phrase ‘girl body’ now) has everything to do with my trauma, and so I didn’t want this girl body, and stepped into a butch-boy body for nearly a decade.  Not everyone, of course, takes the same path–today, together, we’ll get to think about how these pieces shape and influence each other, all the different ways femme resilience looks like.

And then Saturday’s the August Writing the Flood workshop — can’t wait for that one!  I’ve got new exercise ideas (thanks again to Peggy and others) and poems and and — will I get to write with you?

What’s resilience and growth look like for you today?  I’d love to know what you’re thinking about that —

Thank you so much for being there, for reading and for writing —

Seeking office assistant/ promo help — will trade for workshops!

Writing Ourselves Whole needs assistants! Are you one of ’em?

Do you love the writing ourselves whole workshops but are unable to afford participating right now? Do you have online-promotions, flyering, and/or office assistant skills? Would you be interested in trading those skills for writing workshop time? If so, please email me and let’s talk!

I’m expanding the number of workshops I’m offering, and find that, finally, yes, I need some help with the admin side of things! You’d be welcome to work with me in the writing ourselves whole office space, if you have a laptop (and can help me figure out how to set up internet access in the space!) — but you’d also be more than welcome to do your work from home.

Eventually (and in the not too distant future, I hope), I want this to be a for-real paying gig. For now, this is what I can do. Does it sound interesting to you? Want to help the workshops grow, let more folks know about what we’re doing around these parts, and get to do a bunch of amazing writing of your own? Please send me an email (to jennifer (at) writingourselveswhole.org) that briefly describes your skillset and interests, and we’ll talk. (No attachments, please — no resumes needed! :)

Thank you so so much!

we are elastic beings who are ever becoming new

"Go Gently" -- reverse graffiti

(check this out -- 'reverse' graffiti!)

5:43am — what would I be writing about this morning if I had the time, if I could be writing about anything I wanted? Last night the bus took an hour and a half to make a 45 minute trip because traffic on Lombard was so heavy — everyone wanted to get across the Golden Gate.  I was tired of words and wanted to be home. I nearly fell asleep on the bus, dozed a little, got a sleepy mouth.  Sometimes I get tired of words the way I get tired of the smell of my own body, with a kind of sickening overwhelm, because I can’t get away.  There’s no break for me from words.  Words are my only mechanism, only medium, only practice.  They’re my work and my hobby. Last night I came home and drank wine and ate the red beans and rice F! had made, then ate cheese and crackers, then ate ice cream. I watched tv.  If I’d turned off the tv, I’d have been left with words. I wanted to breathe without them for a little bit. I wanted to step outside of that structuring of my brain, which I didn’t, not really, but tv drugs you and makes you think you’re free. The clouds outside look like dark smoke in the early sky. The garbage truck looks like hungry.

The Monday night Write Whole workshop is going and gorgeous, even though the registration is quite small.  The Tuesday night DOE workshop I’ve had to cancel again because only a few people had any interest, only two indicated they’d register and only one followed through. What happens?  I had the idea that many people would want to take an erotic writing workshop, figured that, of course, when I opened the groups up to everyone, folks of all genders, that I might lose some of the women who’d wanted to take the women-only workshop, but I’d get a lot more people who didn’t fit or feel comfortable in those groups: that hasn’t been the case. Maybe it’s because I’m not known, I’m not advertising enough, I don’t have a book or a regular (like, consistent), sexy image: I’m not out there blogging and twittering and facebooking about sex, my own sex and others, I’m not really putting out that this is what I do.  And frankly, right now, it isn’t what I do: I haven’t been doing a lit of sex writing, except when I’ve got a workshop on.  Otherwise, what do I write about?  trauma. flowers. workshops.

The other day I thought maybe I’m interested in sex writing as a part of something larger, as a part of this project of making it safe for us to tell our dangerous stories, the stories that are risky to our identities, to our communities, our families, the stories that express our whole, fragmented, faceted selves, our full and messy realities. The initial impetus around offering erotic writing workshops was to make a space where (queer women) survivors of incest or rape or other sexual trauma could be in their lived, adult, consensual desire, without having to have it be always pretty or always a struggle.  We could write our messiness out.  We could write out the things that we’ve longed for that we haven’t had language for, or have very much had language for but haven’t what haven’t wanted to share with other people, haven’t wanted to share for fear it would be something we had to follow up on or something we’d never be able to do, for fear it wouldn’t sound like something we should want, given our gender identity or sexual identity or class or race or size… given how we’re seen in our groups, maybe, we think this thing we long for looks ridiculous. I don’t pitch the workshops as a place to get you published, a place — right now I just feel low.  I feel low energy.  The point is I don’t think I’d be offering erotic writing workshops as an end in themselves, as important all alone, but as a part of this larger process: telling societally-difficult stories. That’s what I believe in.

I’m interested in space for our breaking stories, the ones that stick in our throats, the ones that hide under our lungs, the ones we aren’t supposed to tell because our families don’t want to hear them or our communities can’t hold them with us, or we don’t think they can.

Here’s what I’m thinking about now: how trauma and creativity are inextricably linked. How trauma survivors are deeply creative beings, and then how creativity can pull us through to our next place as we come through whatever happened to us, its after effects.

Many of us already know this: creativity is in us.  It is us.  Without our creativities we wouldn’t have survived.  We wouldn’t have been able to come up with different solutions, different ways of dealing with difficult situations, wouldn’t have been able to read the street signs in our families, or wherever our experience of trauma situated itself over and within our lives, we wouldn’t have been able to navigate that landscape.  Every decision we make is a creative act. Decision is creative — it has the capacity to engender, make different, make new. Also: make another moment to breathe, make another opportunity for decision.

PTSD, its symptoms, grows out of our creative selves learning to adapt to horrifying situations. Once we are out of those situations, the process is to reengage our creative selves: learn/attempt new strategies, learn our own languages for our experiences and then express them, remember that we are elastic beings who are ever becoming new.

writing hands are strong hands (a new workshop begins tonight)

freedom/graffiti calligraphyVery sleepy here at my morning writing desk.  I have a cup of strong decaf brewed with cardamom and a dash of stevia — so no added sugar! I have Groove Salad slowly waking my auditory self, singing me into this Monday morning.  I have a messy desk, receipts to file, notebooks to type up, seeds to plant, and little notes on torn scraps of paper holding topics I want to write about.

A new workshop starts tonight, another group of folks coming together to dive into their creative selves, to make space in their lives for words-in-community, words that get to commingle with other(s’) words, words that feed and are fed upon dreams and synchronicity.

I get nervous at this moment, when the workshop’s just about to begin, when we all don’t know or remember each other yet, when we’re re-finding our way to our inner songs. This sounds a little simplistic maybe.  What I know is, the nervousness is about possibility, about my learning this particular chorus of voices and energies about to come together.

I love this moment, and I slide into ritual to keep me moving forward: write up the syllabus (which just means creating an outline of possible exercises for each of the 8 weeks, loosely associated with some themes that I came up with awhile ago as topics I thought we ought to touch on during workshops, or themes that often come up whether or not I intend/plan for them to: re-rooting, writing the body, fearless words, unspoken desire, and others), prepare the handouts, shop for snacks, shave and cut up the carrots.

(This is too focused, not morning-dreamy enough.  The poems live under your shoes at the sleepiest times (isn’t that what John Fox said, in the poetry he quoted?). I’d love to have an early morning writing workshop, 8am-10 or even 7-8:30, something folks would come to before they went to work, a space to collect with poetry, with dreamsong, with imagination and vivid interpersonal desire, with the sole purpose of haggling with meaning, a precision of tapping the right words, a sleepy-still writing time with others.)

Here’s what happens at the writing workshops: we write and rewrite our own songs and stories; we practice hearing and witnessing one another’s artistry (and, in so doing, we practice bearing witness to our own); we practice deep kindness.  Each of these are revolutionary acts, and when combined, they can be incendiary — the lit match to inflame our transformative desire, our desire for transformation.

What’s important is how folks use the workshops to transform their writing, their sense of themselves as writers/artists –and how we, over and over again, re-learn that we can trust the truth of our own voices.

There’s no reason this should work this way.  We sit in a room together, we put pen to paper alone, we read our new writing. Why should that be a liberatory practice? Why should we be willing to take that risk?

There’s no point here, and that is the point. Publishing is great, getting your work out in front of the world, whether you read it at a mic or have it appear in an anthology: this is important, plus maybe you get $25 or $50 to throw into your piggy bank.

But it’s not the most important thing, I think.  Or maybe not the most important thing for me, as someone who writes. What happens is we keep on gathering in front of our notebooks, creating something new. Risking again, that we can open and touch the mess and viscera, the hard blood, the stuff of loss and want, the trouble of impossible joy. The thing is that we resettle with these 26 letters and then some, and we try to make magic.

And what happens, in the middle of every workshop — when folks lift their heads from their writing, they tuck their pens behind their ears or keep clicking the ballpoint in and out, when we take a deep breath and say: OK. Who would like to read? — magic does happen. And it’s the simplest, most profound kind of magic: 1) someone has been willing (again! magic!) to risk finding the words to put to a truth that there are never enough words for, and 2) others receive that truth with kind eyes and strong hands (because, I’ll tell you, writing hands are strong hands). This is liberatory stuff: and not just for the writer. Witnessing is a difficult, necessary job. We write with the idea that there is a listener.  We speak to the page as though it has ears. When there are ears, that’s a whole new game.

And then this: in the workshop, we don’t analyze the writer, we don’t pathologize the content. We praise the metaphor, the maybe untended use of rhyme, we notice the repetition, the use of detail, the descriptions. We describe what was strong for us about the writing, and those who came into the room believing that they could not write have a little more weight on the other side of the scale, re-tipping our understanding of ourselves toward ‘creative being.’ Those who came into the room believing they did not have the mettle to tell a particular story, they start to learn different.

But there’s more that I want to say about witnessing: witnessing is work.  It requires attention, intention. In the workshops, we are sometimes witness to stories that have never before been spoken.  We are sometimes witness to the awful, stunning details of trauma: we feel like we’re the birds who’ve slammed into a pane of glass. But we, every time someone reads, are witness to a brand new thing. Every time. And that is a place of extraordinary honor.

We were taught, maybe in school, maybe from something we read, maybe elsewhere, that we aren’t supposed to share first drafts — that they’re not worthy of a hearing.  I don’t believe that.  First drafts–even the stuff at the workshops that are the embryos of first drafts–these have a breath and a heartbeat and a thrumming energy. When we’re willing to share these with others, we begin to hear where we end and the poem, the writing, takes off on its own. We begin to hear where our magic lies. (And maybe I mean that in both ways.) We practice a deep trust. And our writing grows.

Something tender and tenuous that grows among the writers in every workshop — we learn the sorts of things that others notice, we learn, then, how to incorporate those things into our writing, if we want.  We learn from each other’s witnessing, from what others remember and mention. Our writing grows under this care and feeding.

There are those who’d call this sort of writing space indulgent. I say, especially for survivors of trauma (and how many of us aren’t?), we get to indulge (if by that you mean, have treated kindly and with respect) the parts of us that haven’t yet been able to raise their natty, knotty voices.

In the workshops, we get to indulge the parts of our creative selves that went underground.  Of course, we were/are endlessly creative in our survival — because survival is a creative act. Every decision we made, every new facet to our personality grown and honed to protect us: creative. Every yes yanked from our lips, every no danced around, every strategizing moment: creative.

Jane Hirschfield said, at the Healing Art of Writing conference, that she thinks agency is the antidote to depression. “When you are being creative, you are free,” she said.

Yes, exactly. And being free, in community, with others enacting the same risky freedom: that’s liberatory practice. That’s freedom in action.

A new workshop begins tonight. I’ll be there with poems and exercises, tea and snacks and notebooks and pens, ready for the revolution (yours, my own, yes: ours), again and again and again.

Putting words where her body ought to be able to be

This is a write from last night’s workshop — we were responding to one of the following fragments:
– back she went to her own country
– it is the thing you do
– I put my body where my words are (Luisa Valenzuela)

She wants to put her body where her words are, fully into the flavor of sex, stunned with the liquid of meaning and possibility, and the most hostile vulnerability ever. This is the skin I settle into, the girl behind the screen, the safely ensconced in pixels or pencils / and yes, writing is an embodying affair / it sloshes your stones with hopes / it asks your nerves to show up for the aching / but I can forget how to breathe today / and I would almost always rather write than fuck / because behind the skin of my page I can just be that free woman / the one with no safety dug and scabbed beneath her nails / the one whose triggers are taxidermied and mounted on the wall for all to see / to gnash teeth at / to chuckle over / but they are quiet behind glass when she is writing and cannot startle or snare anybody — not there. There, her triggers become works of art, almost admirable / almost

See, that one looks like her sister’s face cluttered over with fallen feathers, the plucked body of a girlchild / and / that one is a diorama of her high school, cardboard cutouts of her graduating class cluttering the forefront, the teenagers’ faces all stained a kind of rakish purple that meant they had eaten the fruit of tomorrow and lived / (Her face is stained only an off-shore eggshell white with what she had to swallow, and there is no tomorrow for her in that picture) / in this one, the boys are all backhanded, they each have a piece of her virginity poking out of their ragged back pockets, though the full flesh of it lives at her house, in her parents’ room / there’s its carapace, over in the far corner / there are diagrams — this one here, and that one — of the ceilings she shut her eyes to, and then studied and tried to find shapes in

All these pieces so containable when she writes, when she writes about sex, she can shut the door to this exhibition / leave it for the curator and night staff to tend to its reedy exhalations and stains of saliva / when she’s writing sex, she doesn’t feel them on her body / she puts words where her / body / ought to be able to be

After reading Minnie Bruce Pratt’s “Justice, Come Down”

(one of my writes from last Monday’s workshop: the prompt, as mentioned in the post’s title, was a reading of Minnie Bruce Pratt’s poem, “Justice, Come Down.”)

I don’t like to write this story, but this is where I wait, with the blackened ash on the back of my tongue: I’m waiting for someone to look there, for someone to see, I want you to notice what I’ve lost, I want it to be a stain, a smear by degrees on my skin. This is where we weather the battle, but I hate war metaphors — it’s inherent in the word survivor, someone who made it through alive. I want a different word, a different metaphor.

I don’t tell my story, I share the facades and shards, the shelved legalese, the patina of identity markers. Telling the story means drooping into vulnerability, means letting in the possibility that you’ll stagger aside after hearing me and let your eyes drop with pity and disappointment.

This weekend on the planes I read two books that maybe aren’t the best light travel reading: Alicia Seybold’s Lucky, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the latter a nihilistic, post-apocalyptic testimony to father-son love, and the former a stranger-rape story.

I read rape stories because I think they will show me how to write my own. F! questions me for buying it, as we’re perusing the heavily-politicized shelves at Modern Times (but what bookstore’s shelves aren’t heavily politicized?)– he wants me to get something upbeat. I tense and swallow and explain that these tellings are upbeat for me — even if it’s not in the way he means. H means a story that doesn’t involve violence or rage or depression, though the book that doesn’t contain any of those is not probably a book I would find in my hands.

What I need are examples of how to write a story I can’t remember in a linear way, and so I read trauma narratives. I watch how the writer folded the story into a line for the reader, or I take note of how they don’t try to keep to a straight line at all. I try to determine how they wrangle with what they don’t remember, what they’re ashamed of remembering but tell anyway, what they hate to remember and forget to mention. How much detail to give, and where they keep it sparse.

Seybold’s is the story of the perfect rape victim — the narrator of this piece (Seybold, yes, but now we’re talking about a book) was raped by a stranger at 19, she was a virgin when she was raped, she called the police and told them everything, remembered details like she’d recorded them with a video camera, she testified in court, she wore all the right clothes and did all the right things according to our current legal system — she was the Good Victim, she hadn’t been drinking that night, she became a successful teacher and writer, she got to have her story appear in mainstream print media and then on Oprah.

These perfectly narrated stories (with, granted, details that she took from court transcripts instead of pulling from her memory whole) always make me feel like yanking at my hair a little — I’m left feeling like my own telling is impossible. I understand that her linear, this-then-this-then-this-so-help-me-god kind of memoir is constructed; maybe she doesn’t really remember it that way. But I want to see something different, something much messier and more true to my life, my head, my remembering and un-remembering., more true to the frenetic and discombobulated way memory smacks around the insides of my life.

Maybe that story’s not publishable, wouldn’t sell, who knows. Does that matter? I still have to find a way to gather it together on the page.