what’s not there

stencil graffiti of a man contemplating an empty (?) picture frameGood morning on this Monday morning. In front of me are the steady flames of two tall white pillar candles,  two tea candles, and their reflection in the window. I’m ensconced in my writing corner at the end of the kitchen table, trying to convince my body that we’re ready to move into the work of this day. The dreams are still slightly shredded around me — was there a road trip, an overstuffed RV? There were children, teenagers, a young man who got his hair cut short. What had been wild and bushy was now cropped short curls tight to his head, and all the girls in his circle adored the new look. He wasn’t so sure. There were lots of dreams, my subconscious was busy last night.

I want to write this morning about the writer’s grief that my adored writer friend and colleague Renee (check out her blog and work and daily writing prompts and general ferocity) talked about a couple of weeks ago. She said that no one talks about what our writing selves mourn, the writing we haven’t done, all that we haven’t dedicated ourselves to, all the time and words and poems that we’ve lost.

These days, in the lead up to leaving my day job, are tangled up with panic and frustration, so much self-recrimination: why haven’t you already done this? You are forty years old and you still don’t know what you’re going to do with your lie? (Whoops! Meant that to be ‘life,’ but the other works, too, huh?) Look at everyone in your circle, the professors and computer professionals and therapists, all the people with their shit together, Jen. Why can’t you get your life together? You’ve said you were going to write books since you were six years old and here you are at forty and no book yet, huh? And still this goal? Really?

(This is my inner critic. Wave hello everyone. Oh, hi, critic!)

Can we calculate all the hours you’ve spent watching tv instead of writing, the hours that total into the month, maybe even into a year or more? Can we total the hours you spent perseverating about wanting to write, the time you spent complaining to yourself or others about how you don’t have enough time to write, all the hours you spent doing everything and anything rather than sit yourself in your chair and put in the effort and time? What makes you think you’re going to be able to do it now? Look at all the time you’ve already wasted. Forty years old– everyone in those magazines you read, that Poets and Writers and all the rest, they’re all babies — twenty-somethings who are actually DOING SOMETHING WITH THEIR WRITING. You think you’ve got something to add to what they’re bringing into the world? Really?

(Here is my own inside example of what Steven Pressfield names Resistance. Whew.)

Now, if any other writer came to me with this sort of narrative going on, I’d encourage them to write it, to be gentle with themselves, to start again anyway, to use it as material until it got boring and then let their writing lead them into the next possibility for their work. But I understand the struggle around allowing the voice out in its fullness, I understand the struggle around setting it free — I get caught in its tethers, its sticky tendrils, its emaciated need. This story, this voice, wants me to be safe. It wants me to be secure. It wants me to do what we already know how to do — get a job and write around the sidelines of that job. We already know how to work lots of small part-time jobs in order to hold open a little room for the writing self. We are comfortable with working more instead of asking for more from the work we are already doing. We are comfortable with keeping ourselves small instead of pushing into our big dreams.

So this is the mourning — yes, I know I’ve wasted time. Yes, I needed that time to get here. I needed it. I’ve spent hours upon hours writing in this lifetime, pressed down into my notebook, scrawling the saving words that will never see the light of day, writing the untellable stories, or the parts that I could allow myself into. It’s not fair to have needed so much time just to convince myself that I deserved to be alive, that I deserved to be a part of these human communities. It’s not fair that so much was taken from me just during that early moment of adolescence, so that it would take me twenty years to find the capacity for stability, to believe that I am capable of standing still and easy on these feet that have carried me, running, all this time. This is my writer’s sorrow today. It’s not fair to have to take time to survive. it’s not fair that I didn’t get some big settlement from the nebraska state government so that I didn’t have to spend my time working to pay for therapy. It’s not fair it’s not fair it’s not fair.

(This is another piece of Resistance — the part that would slip me gently from the writing place and put a glass of wine in my hand, so that the tears could flow, so that I could mourn the unfairness of this life in wild abandon. But then, of course, the writing was abandoned.)

It’s ok to notice these places of loss and sorrow, to write what’s not there, to feel the ache when I read about one more twenty-something who’s had her first book published to wild acclaim — who maybe is a survivor herself (Look, Jen, she didn’t even succumb to all your bullshit excuses!) and who still managed to get herself together to sit down at the computer and put one word after the other and then send it all out to an agent.

Ok. Ok. Ok. I breathe into this whole lifetime, and I exhale into my right now. I can’t do anything to change what came before this moment. I am able to make a new choice now and now and now. Sometimes I will still sit in front of some streamed video rather than write my stories. Sometimes I will turn off the stream, put the radio on to quiet, light a candle, and allow the words to flow. I will build a new bridge to comfort and safety, I will find new safety and possibility in discomfort and uncertainty.

The mourning doesn’t end, maybe won’t end — but it abates as I am in my work now. The voices get louder and the mourning increases when I am not writing; and then I can feel as though it’s impossible to cross the field of wailing to get back into this place of creation and generation. Won’t the critics be too loud? But look what happens — just sit down. Just write it. Just put it on the page and let the next things come. Their voices begin to slip into a background place, and I can focus on this now. Trauma doesn’t want us in the now, and of course, for so many of us and for so many years, the now was an awful place to inhabit. We can gentle ourselves around our now. We can move slow, we can invite a word at a time and slowly build a stable ground for this work that has been our lifetime ambition. We are mourning and we live with loss and we can write anyway.

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This is the prompt for today: What’s not there? What is your morning, what is your character’s mourning? Give me ten minutes of all that you’ve done instead of write. Give me fifteen minutes, if you can, of the time you’ve “lost” and what you’ve done with it. Start there, then follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go. What has this life been made of? Maybe your critics and Resistance voices are especially voluble today — want to let them out on the page, push those words out through their fingers just to see where they will lead? What do they most want from you? What do your character’s voices of resistance or criticism sound like?

Thank you for your patience with your psyche’s work to protect you and keep you safe. Thank you for your gentle and bold steps into the work you want from your life now. Thank you for the honest way you hold your loss, the ways you let it live in you, the ways you offer it words. Thank you for your words. Thank you every day for your words.

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