He was in my dreams last night (the memory of him, the shadow of reaction and response to him that still lives in my neocortex, my hypothalamus, my frontal lobes and hind brain both the same), but I can’t quite remember what was going on. He was in my bedroom, or I was in his, I had been in the house alone, he’d been kept late at work, at a training. He said, They kept us late, with a kind of wistfulness, like if he’d been there sooner, he could have joined me in my nap, or in the bath, he talked to me like he was my lover, again he was talking to me that way, just now it was in my dreams. The room was soft, full of shadows, afternoon moving into evening and I was going to have to talk my way out of having sex with him — or was it too late for that, and so what was under the surface of his speech was that layer of disappointment that I was supposed to collude with: too bad we didn’t have enough time. I wake up not quite remembering, but just feeling lost, gone, over.
I was in their old house, but all I’m left with now is the oily, gentle, sure way that he’d smiled, like everything about him was greased inside, like he was butter-soft and kind, like he thought I was stupid, like he thought I had no memory — like I would believe his pooling gentility the way that people in the outside world did. Like I didn’t remember how vicious he could be, like I didn’t remember the names he could call me, like I had forgotten his violence, like I didn’t have that hold on my own consciousness. Because what he wanted was control over my very consciousness — not just body and actions, but how I viewed and engaged with the world.
I want to have more of the dream to hold on to–even though I wake up feeling nausea and foreboding–because it’s material. I mean it when I tell people, about any shitty or frustrating or terrible thing they’re going through (although, sometimes I hold my tongue about it until much later): It’s all material. You can use all of this in your writing, your work.
All of it. The money troubles, the awful housemate, the boyfriend that stalked you, the girlfriend who told lies about you to everyone you knew, the car accident, the abusive parents, the abortion, the recovery, the everything — it’s all yours and you can use it however you want in your work.
So all of my history, like all my experiences: that’s my material, it’s my raw dirt, it’s my topsoil and my seeds and how it grows is by pushing it through these fingers onto the page. And that’s really damn hard work. My conscious self doesn’t always (ever) want those memories back — I’ve spent so many years working to sift myself away from them. The dreams help me remember the details. And now I have two writing projects that ask me to remember, to give those memories and experiences, in varying forms, to other people. I need to be able to show you that gentle-surfaced ominous smile, so that you can feel the foreboding — that’s my job as a writer. I need you to see the worried fold in his pale forehead, dashed with a few stray greying hairs, that looked like he was worried about me but actually indicated the work he was doing to figure out how to convince me to go back into the bed and take my clothes off without having to force me to do so. I need you to hear the strain in his chuckle, the way his moustache would furrow up, the places where his pretense frayed. See him there in his canvas pants and shirt, a big man pretending to be young, cradling books in his arms, moving just slightly in the room, against my movements, so that he blocks the door.
I don’t want my characters to have gone through what I’m understanding that they’ve gone through. And yet, there they are in front of me, asking that I comprehend and communicate their story. Which means pushing back into my own, not because our stories are exactly the same, but because it’s through my own experience that I empathize with theirs, because it’s through my experiences that I have the language for what they’ve gone through, are going through.
And then, after I push this writing out (in different ways for different projects), I treat myself. Today it might be a cardamom-laced decaf from Philz, or a long walk. Sometimes I have to take a long break from the writing, to let myself move through the guilt and shame and pride of being able to tell.
Writing prompt for today: Let yourself or your characters be dangerous. Read this poem (aloud, if you can) and then write however you are drawn in response. Grab one of the lines, if you’d like; begin with, “I’d like to be a danger,” or “I’m a danger only to…”
I gave this prompt during MedEd Writers last month, and this was my response:
Jocelyn gets tired — some days, just now and again and maybe mostly during the handful of days before she starts to bleed every month — she gets tired of being everyone’s safe space, being the political-minded but nonjudgmental friend, being the one with statistics to explain why one more woman’s inability to save her child from the people harming them isn’t that woman’s fault, being the comforter, the peace-keeper, the mediator — she gets tired of holding the net beneath everyone’s crumbling, being the one with the band-aids in her pocket, the gum in her backpack, an extra 50 cents for the bus, an extra hour to help a coworker process one more weird and drawn-out interpersonal drama.
Her friend Jonas calls and needs her to listen, again, to his telling, again, about one more boy who is walking all over him and borrowing his clothes and money without returning anything, ever — oh, and sleeping with other men even though they said they were being monogamous — it breaks her heart with rage when he calls with these stories.
Jocelyn hears someone (is that her voice?) interrupting to say, “Jonas, what the fuck did you expect?”
Then there’s silence on the line.
“Jo, you told me this exact story, word for word, three months ago, with Tommy, and before that, with Kyle. Mark stole your weed, Jesse wouldn’t ever le you go out alone, David called and texted so often that you had to cancel your service.”
Jonas is still quiet on the other end of the phone, and Jocelyn isn’t entirely sure what the someone in her throat will say next. She opens her mouth and waits a moment. Then it erupts: “You do this over and over and just want me to listen to how bad these boys are to you — but, let’s be honest, I can’t just listen anymore. What’s the common denominator?”
Jonas is holding his breath — Jocelyn checks and sees, yes, he’s still there, the call’s still live.
“Tell him no, Jo, god. Tell him to fuck off. Do something different.” Jocelyn listens to her friend exhale. She holds her breath and waits.
Thank you for your patience, and for the ways you let impatience drive you to take new risks. Thank you for the ways that you care so much, so hard, so fierce for the ones you love. Thank you for your tellings, your honesties, your words.