what a writing community can do

These are the alone days. Did you hear the wind last night? Rumi says the breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you; don’t go back to sleep. But what do the poets say about the tempest at night?

You must ask for what you really want… Rumi says this, too, in the same poem. This means knowing what you really want — and then asking, even when you know with all of your heart that you don’t deserve it.¬†Ask anyway. Write it down in your notebook, put it in the hands of those who love you, share your becoming with the world.

~~ ~~ ~~

Today I’m thinking of writing community, about how we shape a community that can hold us when we are struggling — more than that, about how to allow ourselves to be held, to believe that we deserve that. Today I’m thinking about desire and creative emergence and the aftermath of trauma — how trauma keeps on taking from us, years and years after those hands are removed from our bodies.

I write often with trauma survivors — which means I get to witness trauma’s response to a survivor’s decision to commit themselves to a creative life, or to writing the stories that have been silenced, or to writing the book they have always wanted to write or the poems that sing behind their closed morning eyes or create the stage production that has been longing to emerge for years. I get to bear witness to the backlash. It’s one thing to live it, to experience that backlash within myself — my own survival tactics, those old self-protective techniques that helped me keep quiet and isolated and disconnected in order that I might stay alive, rise up and sometimes seem to hold my very arms down when I want to write. Those parts feed me depression and sitcom television and salty food and the inside talk that sounds like, “honey, no one cares if you write that book — it’s not like it actually matters — why don’t you make some popcorn and watch television? Isn’t that easier?” When I’m alone and trying to force myself to write, I can get tangled in those voices: “What difference could it make for you to write that stuff now? It’s not like it’s paying your rent? Why don’t you get a job?”

This is where a creative community can be transformative. When I am filled with self-defeat, when the trauma aftermath has strait-jacketed me in its soft talk and old abuser’s voice, if I can bring myself to enter (just as I am) into the room with those who love me and (maybe, in those moments, more importantly) love my writing, I can receive a counterbalance to those voices and find myself invited — gently and with kindness — back into the strength of my own words.
When we are not writing, when we are overwhelmed with work and life, when know for sure that we will never write anything of worth or measure, when we are sick and scared — this is exactly the time to have available to us a community of peers who adore us. Yet, this is also exactly the time when we who have survived trauma will often turn away from that community. (Is it like that for you? It’s definitely like that for me…)

When the writing is flowing well, when we’re strong in our work, when that submission was accepted or we finished a poem or we got the residency or an editor responded positively to our writing — those are easy times to connect with our groups of writing friends. We can be worthy of celebrating. We can be worth the space we take up in the room.

But when we are struggling with our work, when the words are stuck to the insides of our fingers and will not emerge no matter how many freewrites we do, when the book mocks us from the computer screen, when the day job asks for more of our time and we can’t get to even our twenty-minutes-a-day, when our very bodies seem to turn against the writing and we need to spend all day stretching out spasming muscles (let’s just say), when we are sick with fear or loss or sorrow or flashback or chronic trauma aftermath — how can we ask our writing beloveds to hold us then? Why would we inflict ourselves upon them? Especially because we know that they are doing better in their own work. We know that everything is coming easy for them. We know that they sent out their submissions or got paid for a piece of writing or have all the time in the world to write or don’t ever have to deal with flashbacks when they just wanted to write for twenty minutes about the birds at the bird feeder.

These knowings are rarely accurate, in my experience. They’re offered to us by those inner critics, the inside voices that will do whatever is necessary to keep us from our creative transformation, to keep us from undoing what they have worked so hard to create: a system that keeps to itself, doesn’t tell the secrets, holds everything together, tight and impenetrable.

Our creative communities can love us when we’re at our “lowest,” when we’re scraping the bottom of our creative barrels, when we are scared and hurt and certain that the words will never come again. They want to love us in those moments because 1) they want to love us in all the moments, 2) they believe in us and believe that it’s necessary for our words to find their way into the world, and 3) they themselves need that exact sort of love and support when the clamor of their inside voices gets loud.

We who were convinced that we were unloveable, that we were not worthy of care and attention until and unless we were perfect — we can find this hard to believe — and even harder to practice.

There’s a chapter in Natalie Goldberg’s book Thunder and Lightning called “You Can’t Do It Alone“– I was looking at it yesterday, wanting to share it with my Dive Deep writers. It’s a chapter I read over and over, as someone who has worked for a lifetime to be able to do everything important alone, to not need friends or help, to not have to do anything that would force me to be visibly vulnerable in front of others. But we need others to help us bring our work out into the world — we need other voices to counteract the stuff inside us that says what we have to offer is nothing but shit. We need others to help us retune our inside radio away from KFKD. We need to engage with others’ work, to get out of our own heads, and to listen to those who love us (whose writing we love and admire as well) that we deserve the air we breathe and the paper we’re wasting with all these printouts, and that the words we’re writing mean something.

Some people find this sort of support in just one or two writing companions. Some people find this community in school, in classes, in workshops or writing groups. Today I’m going to invite you to lean into the writers in your community, to reach out to them, even (especially) if your work isn’t going “well” and you know that the best thing for you to really do is give up and eat a pint of ice cream. Someone might come join you for a scoop (literally or figuratively) — and then you can write together.

Thank you for your words. I believe in you and I believe in your writing. It matters. Please keep going.

One response to “what a writing community can do