Tag Archives: writing

Turn story under story

This is a write from the Monday night Write Whole workshop.  The prompt asked each of us to create two lists, one of the stories we tell often, another of the stories we don’t tell.  Here’s my response:

There are stories I’m desperate to tell / the backhand side to my coming out-incest story / stories that are all interwoven in someone else’s pain / the truths other people aren’t willing to spill yet / I mean, people in my family, I mean / people I love.

There are parts that involve my sister, my / dad, and I don’t just want to write them in my notebook, I want to write them to share / but because I can’t share their stories / I don’t write them at all.

No, that’s not true.  I don’t write those stories at all because they shred me / those parts / those are the worst parts — the parts of the story where I touched someone else tender and fragile and we broke each other.

There are other stories I don’t tell.  This most recent visit to Mom’s, at the end of the Tour, she and I sat in her tiny kitchen and she asked me why I write about sex, did it still have a connection to my stepfather?  She knew part of the story.  She knew (how did she know?  when had I explained this to her?) that he wanted me to write sex stories for him, when I was in college. There’s an official line: I told him yes  sometimes, and then I did it.  I emailed him these stories of fancy girls just coming out and learning to have sex with women, stories about two gay men letting a girl, a woman, into their sex just that one time. They were good and ridiculous stories all at the same time. I don’t remember what he said about them. I don’t want to tell you about the story he sent me.  It was entered into evidence when we filed charges against him.

This is what I want to tell you: when I was writing, I didn’t think about him.  I didn’t make it for him.  But I did make it a stand in. I created something that could replace my body, my voice.  I told you that this was when I was in college.  Here’s the story you don’t know.  He started abusing (and what a story lives behind that word) me in jr. high, and by college — what — this is my shorthand: by college, he thought he had us, me, trained.  And he did.  Kind of.  I was 1400 miles away and he wanted to hear orgasms over the phone and he got them. Sometimes.  And then later, when I started writing stories, those could take the place of the tele-gasms, the phone-based ministrations, the dial-a-devastation.

Can you imagine?

I explained this to my mother, I said, writing the story was easier, was preferable, to masturbating over the phone. (It looks almost like a normal thing, that sentence, so calm:  This is why writing makes me crazy.) My mother started to cry, her thin body got all wobbly, these are the stories we don’t remember, we’ve heard before.  We sat in her white painted kitchen with tchotkes on ever surface and though I could not peel myself vulnerable for her, I did begin to understand how those stories had done work for me, had begun to do the heavy lifting — I let them take his violence, and then I let them, later, with others, seduce and flint and cajole and swelter.

I learned the physical work that stories can do.

I didn’t describe all this to my mother.  It feels like a kind of violence now, this awareness, how I saved myself at the expense of these characters — how I learned to turn story under story, take space back through words, let these things under my pen and fingers do the labor that my body had just grown too damn weary for.

“Real” Butch

(This is a part of a longer, ongoing work in progress about this transition from feminine straight girl to butch dyke to femme…)

I’ve been defending you a lot recently in ways I never would have back when I was you. You never used the term Real Butch, hated that essentializing, that narrowing of focus, that erasure of all the other queer possibilities of the masculine gendering the female flesh. Nowadays, now and again, I tell the ones who ask me, OK, yeah, I was a Real Butch.

They can’t hear the “but…”         but you do, I know it, I can feel you peeling behind my teeth, wanting to push out the whole story, wanting me to keep on telling it like it was—and is—how there’s no such goddamn thing as a real butch and butch is as ze says it is, whoever’s wearing the skin on that body, but we both know that’s always in question, right?

The truth is I’m still grateful to you for the ways you made me know I could be safe in the world and although just recently we, you and me, got told that we had a privileged coming out because there was the semblance of a community at school when I put 2 and 2 together and got gay and because I came out into a place where gayness was relatively acceptable—we both remember that there was not much safe about my life then and your hands had had to go places they were never meant to visit and you carried all the heavy boxes of our terror and you opened the doors for our future possibility – all the things, yes, that a goddamn real butch is supposed to do. You found a way to fit this me, now, into your curvature and flank, into your faggy footwork on the dance floor under the smoke machine’s smog and the one starry sad set of flashing red green and gold lights at the local bar.

And here’s what I want you to know now: I’m sorry we didn’t make it out any deeper before my plumage and finery found its way back out again, before the girl was made possible again and you had to slide that fine black leather motorcycle jacket off your shoulders for the last time – it just doesn’t fit now; I’d wear it for you if it could. But I mean, I’m sorry that we never found those bars, those old smoky hinges of solidarity where you could have shaped and strapped the hard gear of your masculine future, where you could have butted heads with other women willing to ride the hard truth of this existence; goddamnit, I mean I’m sorry you never got to be a real butch with other real butches, be looked upon as something or someone right not just novel or different or brave or odd or whatever. Not as just a shield, but as a real self.

I want you to know I believed in you and needed you in those years, and, of course, it’s not like I can’t feel how you shaped my walk, or how you get me in trouble still, assuming I can make eye contact with anyone on the street and have it be the right safe thing to do.

Here’s what I mean to say – that there’s never anything false about us when one identity shifts and slides into another. We both know that girl wasn’t a safe place to be all those years and you stepped up like a butch does and you made a handful of things a little safer. I know I’m not supposed to say these things: we spent so much time pulling up the roots of our history to find the nascent butch inside and just look, just look where we are now—

the physicality of it


This is what I love about writing: the physicality of it and the mess, the rush of words and the trying to keep up with the flood         how I got a new pen with fresh ink and so I’m trying to reclaim my wrist         this fat fast smooth ache —

what I love about writing is harnessing what’s intangible, impenetrible, the desperation to get inside         fully         the thing that has no words, not really, the truth is writing is a chase, trying to catch the breath of the words, the thought, the fist thing that flashed across behind the tongue of my imaginings before it’s snipped away by loss or ego or don’t say that or reconstructive tendencies.

What I love is this reaching, teaching myself to breathe, to drink, to eat while I write         keep the wrist aching, move through that burn into the true good stuff, how the words aren’t more important than the race, and they are.

Prompt for a Tuesday: Conversation among our “selves”

It’s Tuesday, and I dunno about you, but I am already well into my week, and the “self” that I am on the weekends feels further and further away by the minute.

Here’s a prompt for this morning:
Take a few moments and write down all the “selves” you are in your life right now (or maybe create this list for a character you’re working with!). (For instance, my list might include: commuter, database flunky, writer, dreamer, coffee addict, etc.)

Let yourself notice which two of your “selves” take most of your time right now, or are otherwise calling your writerly attention, and let them talk with one another for at least 15 mins…

(Please feel welcome to enter responses to this prompt in the comments!)


I wrote this in Monday’s workshop, and it’s the beginning of something longer, I think, about how different words are “charged” differently for each of us… xo, Jen

Yesterday at the bookstore I asked the man behind the counter if they had any books by James Pennebaker.

“I don’t know who that is,” he said.

I waited for him to offer to look the name up, but he didn’t. He was quiet, and for a moment I thought that was going to be the end of the conversation.

Then he said, “What does he write about?”

And so I described how Pennebaker writes about the uses of writing to mitigate the aftereffects of trauma. And the young man behind the counter at this Berkely bookstore said, “Oh, well, I don’t know – but if we had anything like that it would be up in self-help popular psychology – you know, we hear the word ‘trauma’ and we just throw it up there.”

Ok. I’d just spent the last hour scanning all the titles in their relatively (at least by today’s bookstore standards) extensive linguistics, psychology and popular psychology sections, and found no books about the uses of writing as a healing or social change craft or practice or tool. But, here, look – I did find this old standby attitude about trauma: It’s not a terribly serious issue, not really, those whiners, put it there next to the What Color is Your Inner Elephant? and How Your Catbox Can Guide You To Enlightenment. I felt that old internalized shame, to be asking for a book about trauma – just one more white woman looking for the language to my loss? What’s this attitude about the struggle and strain for transformative experience?

I mourn the feeling that these words of my life are the loaded curse words: trauma, incest: not dyke or pornographer. Those latter words have no power over me, carry no tethers to my own shame and still these years later I cringe under the gaze of real academics, real literary pursuers, rel social change workers who aren’t so ‘bound by their past’ or who are able to just ‘let things go, move on.’ This is me, moving on, with these words, sanded against my face always, chapping my lips and cheeks, reminding me where I come from. This boy-man behind the counter worked it out on my bald face, his fear of this word, this one of the many loaded words we all carry, and how the word becomes a crematorium to connection or even meaning if we aren’t truly listening to each other.

Some words that are loaded for me to hear: incestuous, traumatized, raped—especially, I’ll tell you, when those words are not used to refer to people and their actions against the bodies of, or experiences at the hands of, other people, and instead used thus: the women’s community here is so incestuous, you know? Or, The people are just being raped by the banking execs, huh? These images don’t work for me.

A loaded word is one that is too heavy for metaphor.

The loaded words I use that are not triggering or difficult for me any more but might still score an anvil-dropping line across another’s ear are: lesbian, gay, dyke, queer, survivor, rebel, survivor, Black, white, fucking…; I say these words with impunity, I spend them freely, I have earned the right to let them fall off my lips in every day conversation, at the credit union or with my father. The folks I’m talking to are not always so similarly prepared, their ears not exercised or stretched out, their eardrums are tensed still, they are accustomed to these words being laden with anger. But in my world, these words are laden with fear – ok, sometimes, sure – but they are laden also with love.

These are the buckets of cold water we offer one another to drink. Sometimes, we have to say the difficult thing, just because we know there’s another someone nearby, maybe also waiting in that bank line, whose ears are parched from all the silences, from all the years of people not saying the words that are too heavy for some people to hold. True, sometimes those words are going to sound like that cold water just got thrown in our face, our eyes pop open wide and we get that shocked look, like we just woke up – hard.

We wake each other up.

Aural Alignments

Yesterday it felt like all the mercury retrograde hit me at one time — bracelets broke, folders spilled all over the back of the car when I was trying to get to work early, items got misplaced and were unfindable, and at my primary work gig, I found myself feeling deeply out of place and on the wrong path entirely.

Mostly I manged to stay in a decent mood, going with the rather ragged (at least to this conscious brain) flow — there have been plenty of bad days, bad mood days, sad days recently, and I didn’t want to have another one. Still, by day’s end, I felt in need of a deep spiritual chiropractic adjustment. I was all achy inside, weird and out of sorts. I had a mostly non-dinner, started watching old monty python sketches on youtube, walked to the laundromat for quarters so I could do laundry, then turned on the tv to distract myself even further.

I watched tv for maybe 7 minutes then went into the bathroom to do manicure-ish things, turned on the radio which was tuned to KQED, and a voice was saying, “I have to read the old ones first because people seem to want me to …” and a little more and then the voice was reading “Wild Geese.” It was Mary Oliver, reading her own work, and I turned and rested against the sink and just listened. I let myself cry, get into the rhythm and the possibility of poetry, and was thankful.

Listening to the pieces in her own voice, listening to the words flow with the rhythm into which they’d been intended to flow, hearing what was the same and different than how I might read myself. My mascara kind of racooned around my eyes further than is usual for me at day’s end, but now it looked like something proper — the mess of possibility.

The laundry got done, I fed myself something more like dinner, and Mary Oliver’s poetry reminded me who I am when all my parts are in the right places.

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press

Podcast Answers – Day 7: How facilitating the workshops has changed my own writing?

About a month ago, I committed to posting longer, more well-thought-out answers to the questions that Britt Bravo posed to me during our Arts and Healing Network podcast conversation. Here’s my answer for day seven!

7. How has [facilitating] the workshops changed your own writing?

Metal cursive courage
I think the most important impact that the workshops have had on my own work is an encouragement to be more, and more consistently, brave.

Planetary devastationEach week I get to write with folks who are taking chances, finding new language for old pains, old desires, or new and surprising ones. Every week I am inspired by these writers’ braveries, their risk and subtle (and not-so-subtle!) implosion of yet another barrier to connection with others, of demands to silence, of old trainings. The way we often go ahead and read aloud the work we hate, the work that scares us to have written, the work that seems to make no sense, the work that is “too” stream of consciousness, “too” organized, “too” truthful or “too” fictional.” The way Pat Schneider organized the AWA method makes it feel ok, feel possible, for folks to “go there” in their writing, to speak the unmentionables, to create a story for that thing without words.

Colorful starburstI am someone who believes that you ought not ask someone to do something you haven’t, or wouldn’t, do yourself–so I am driven to step into similar risk. To let myself try on words for a big fear, a big loss, a big shame, a big longing. To let myself strip out the words to a new story that needs an old telling. The folks I’ve written with since 2002 encourage me over and over purely through their example to take more risks in my writing, to follow the truths in my writing, as they do, to say what isn’t supposed to be said., like they do, to claim my multiplicity of voices, like they do. This is the most profound effect that facilitating these workshops has had on my work.

The fact that I’m always reading aloud what I’ve just written means my work, overall, is more performative, more ready to be performed, because I’m writing it with the knowledge that I will most often be reading it aloud – that means I pay a different quality of attention, even unintentionally, to how the words will sound when I bring them up off the page and into my lungs, off my tongue and into the room. Body Heat flyerMost of the pieces I performed on this year’s Body Heat: Femme porn tour were written in an AWA-method workshop, either Writing Ourselves Whole or Laguna Writers workshops, first read there, first received in these crucibles of risk and transformation and possibility – and those receptions paved the way for a more public (nation-wide!) reading!

These are the biggest effects on my own writing of facilitating the Writing Ourselves Whole workshops – in addition, of course, to writing a whole lot more regularly. What about for you? Are there ways that working/writing in one of the Writing Ourselves Whole or another AWA-method workshop has impacted your writing?

Writing and healing in the news

Some time ago, I set up a GoogleAlert to let me know when the words “writing and healing” appear in a news artlcle or online posting. I’ve received some surprising and lovely results, mostly from small, local or regional papers/journals/blogs. This is the sort of news we (I, at least) don’t read every day, the deeply important, so-called “small” stories that aren’t receiving wide, mainstream attention.

Recently, I learned about the following:

  • The Wordcraft Circle oF Native Writers and Storytellers are back to host the ‘Returning the Gift Native Writer’s Festival’ in March, at MSU in East Lansing, MI.

  • A story about veterans using writing to heal from trauma (in the National Catholic Reporter!)
  • And a report from Charlottesville about a reading from the collection ‘Meet Me At the Mountain Top, personal narratives of recovery from mental illnesses at Region Ten’s Blue Ridge House.

    Had any of you already seen these stories? All these folks are using the written word to transform their lives, and the lives of others.

    Oh! And from a completely different announcement, I learned about this wiki, hopebuilding, stories of ordinary folks doing extraordinary things to improve the world… let’s make sure to visit this site, and post our own stories of extraordinary action in the service of our individual communities! This is the kind of news we need to know…

  • Telling (Our) Stories

    On recommendation of someone at UCSF, I’ve been reading Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.’s book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. Dr. Remen, an accomplished physician, survivor of chronic illness, and therapist, began many years ago to think about how best one might work with patients who were facing chronic illness and death.

    Stories are powerful instruments — and they’re as common and consistent for us as breathing. Just as the Tales Grimm or the old Parables or the Ananzi or Coyote tales are recognizable as telling us something about how our communities think we ought to live, we have individual/familial stories that we tell ourselves and one another very consistently every minute of every day. We, as literate and verbal culture, are ever immersed in story.

    What’s the definition of story? My online dictionary says it can be used as a noun or a verb. I loved multi-layered words like that. Anyway, one definition is “an account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious.” Another is “to decorate with scenes representing historical or legendary events; to tell as a story.” (Circularity is always fun — and the dictionary is fraught with it, but that’s another story!)

    We, many of us, have been told not to “tell stories” — meaning: don’t lie. So, we learn to tell different stories — ones that, because they make the folks around us more comfortable, are called truth. it’s hard work, once again, to retrain the grooves in our mind to accept the possibility that those early stories can come into the slot called truth.

    We are a collection of our stories. the memories we lift out of our pockets to share with friends over dinner, or that we recite for ourselves in the thick of depression or in the bright morning of recovered joy —

    Why are we talking about stories? In her book, a collection of anecdotes, stories, musings, recollections, retellings, Dr. Remen spins open the possibility of new knowings, new understandings of self and community and world and humanity. She tells of her own transformations throughout her life, many of these precipitated by truly being present with another person’s stories.

    What does all of this have to do with sexual abuse, with trauma — or with sexuality? If we as a culture are immersed in story, then it follows (for me, at least) that we come to know, to understand, ourselves through story. When we allow ourselves to be, it’s possible to be transformed by others’ stories — by others’ ways of knowing the world, seeing the world, seeing possibility — this require vulnerability, a willingness to be open.

    We don’t have to take on another’s interpretations of life or experience — but what happens when we are present with other people’s stories is that we can recognize that there exist different ways of looking at the world, looking at ourselves, at pain and struggle, at desire and longing , than we ourselves have yet come across — I notice this happening quite often in the writing workshops, a note of “I had never heard it described quite that way before — it was so surprising!” And there’s a shift, a splitting open, a new openness of our perceptions, and thus ourselves…

    and what a way to move in to a new year — or this new moment.

    As always, of course, I’d love to know what you think. What’s your relationship to story? If you’re willing, I’d be happy to post your thoughts/responses/ideas/stories here…

    Blogging our workshop creations #1

    Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do with the raw material that we create in workshops – and often, it’s not necessary to do anything; there’s powerful work done just in the act of writing, in the act of creation. Yet, there are times when I want to return to a piece, and I’m not sure how to pick up where I left off… the first thing I have to do, of course, is transcribe the work from my notebook into the computer. And one of the things I’ve decided I’d like to do is put more of this work up onto my blogs.

    From a mid-July meeting of the Monday survivors writing workshop, one of my own exercise responses:

    It’s difficult, the things that are known and the things that are unknown, and when I say difficult, I mean shitty and infuriating, and when I say ‘are known’ and ‘are unknown’ in that most passive voice, what I mean is the things I can say for certain and the things that I could possibly have never said for certain because when they were occurring I was without a root in language, my mouth floated out, into an obliterating twisting and carnivorous extermination whenever I tried to find the words, and now, I am without a root in time or place or truth.

    And then, even here, I wonder if any of this makes sense.

    Sometimes all I want is to speak to other survivors, cause sometimes all that needs to be said is, You know?, and you make a face and your affect says everything and you don’t have to explain and they say Yeah, and hen you both nod and you’re sort of silent, not because now you’re trying to swallow, once again, a desire to tell, to have someone else understand, but because s/he meant it when s/he said Yeah. S/he gets it, whatever the shitty thing is, and there’s no need to wrangle up into the terror of words that can never really speak the truth anyway…

    What I want to know is a matter of fact timeline, but what goes beyond the point of contamination to the honest-to-god wreckage that is my memory is the fact that isolation/disconnection/dissociation during an experience means that some things are just not possible to anchor in time. So, of course, these rememberings just float around in my body, my brain, a whole smeared fabric of my adolescence, a thin, dense stain on what was otherwise apparently, to the rest of the world, a perfectly privilegedly normal and cohesing existence.

    What I know is what happened – hands on the only budding places of my body, the truth of years spent readying me for his ultimate goal – and what I don’t know now – besides why, because who cares? – is exactly when. Was I fourteen or sixteen? Still in junior high or high school? Was it winter outside? Summer? Were the birds throbbing alive in all the trees or were the outsides silencing in solidarity with my own?

    What I don’t know is how to make poetry of this. What I don’t know is how to stop wanting to know – wanting these peculiar answers. What I don’t know is why it matters if I figure out now, twenty years later, that Ok, yes, I must have been fifteen when that part happened, when the body of me came pressing tight to my lips, when I felt all the air escape from what I thought was the secure solidarity, the impenetrable mask, of my thick skin.

    I put a period there, but I think I was asking a question, wasn’t I? What I’d really like to know is how to, just once, twist that image of his body and my body on that cheap squeaky brass-framed bed into a work of art that even my ears could find beautiful – no, maybe not beautiful, maybe not honoring, but no more pedantic and not any more pity-worthy – I’d like for these images to begin finally doing service to some other kind of truth.

    Really, I’d like to elect them out of their only residence in my brain and push them hard onto the paper, tape them cheaply down with crappy tape that quickly pulls up and dirties at the corners, push those bilious, billowy pictures flat for once, let them be seen in two shallow, sullen dimensions, show them – yes, sure, finally – to my mother and father, let them see what was happening, share these pictures with my sister, like trading cards. We would sit, cross-legged, in the clover park with the summer bees all around and chew our big words of gum while the wind blew the hair all around our faces and we’d finally look at all we could not share or see before, in the vast, thick safety of that warm afternoon.