After the Purge

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Sitting down to write this post took an enormous effort of will.  I finished an online creative nonfiction course a few weeks ago and I stopped writing regularly as soon as my final essay was complete, so it’s been maybe two months of unexpected and welcome relief.  For the last two years, writing about my experience in the prison has been a release of sorts.  It helped capture my thoughts and feelings, although it’s unclear whether it helped me release either but probably not.  Nothing short of a complete separation would have accomplished that feat.

Today, I’m close to eight months away from my last day at CCCF.  Most of these last eight months have been spent de-toxifying from my time there, and learning how to operate as a normal human being again.  Those years, combined with the years of stress and uncertainty preceding them had turned me into an anxious, brittle, and fearful woman.  I had some success hiding just how anxious, brittle and fearful I had become, but I was never able to hide it from myself.

Those years ate my light; they consumed everything I knew of beauty and grace and joy and spirit.

Lately though, the writing has been pressing on me, memories lingering in my consciousness.  The stories of my time there, my relationships with the women I taught, and observations about the system constantly break the surface, jarring me with their presence.  I can shove them back under, but they are still there. I’ve asked the non-intellectual part of my being to grieve and celebrate this enormous transition and it’s been thrilled to comply, so I’ve been processing mainly through art these several months.  But as much as I love exploring drawing and illustration for emotional release, I cannot tell these stories through that art.  Words are my medium, and the words are softly demanding my attention.

I just don’t know how to start again.

Being away from all that pain and suffering makes it less immediate, and reduces the feeling of urgency.  That voice that demanded, constantly, that I let people KNOW and do my part to change the system has quieted.  It rouses occasionally, but it is lackadaisical, at best.  I’ve stepped away from all the information sources that used to stimulate my awareness,  deliberately choosing to set all that pain to the side.  It is a position of privilege, but I cannot bring myself to feel shame or guilt about this choice.

I feel light and happy and safe. Work doesn’t feel like much work, it’s a delight to do something less fraught, where a mistake won’t mean drastically increasing someone else’s suffering.  This new path is a great gift, and all I want to do is enjoy the days, do art, and drift.  Even thinking about writing that story feels hard.

I’ve realized that almost all the writing I do is somehow related to suffering – to trauma and oppression and the misery of the world.  When I think about writing a memoir, whether it’s about CCCF or not, my thoughts focus on the sad and miserable things that brought me to where I am today.  How do I write about all of those things – feelings, events, circumstances, choices – without putting myself back in that grueling, grunting space?  It’s not a matter of self-judgment, it almost feels like self-preservation.

How do I stay connected to this precious gift of light and space and relief if I’m writing about those pain-soaked years?  I know they are part and parcel of who I am, but I’m ready to write a new story about myself.  How do I hold this new facet, and gently touch and release the old?

Figure vomiting words

Give It Up

Arrogance

Art/Images, Creative, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I looked up the word arrogance before writing this post, just to make sure I had selected the correct word.  I’m not convinced it’s the right word, but I can’t think of one better so here we are.  When I started believing I could write about my experience working in prison, I knew (intellectually) it would be a challenge.  Although I have extensive experience in technical and business writing, curriculum development, reflective and academic writing, I have ZERO experience in creative fiction, nonfiction, or memoir.  I knew I was venturing into unknown territory but I’m not the first to do so, nor will I be the last.

One of my reasons for venturing into this wilderness is my tendency to get distracted by intellect, and I often think about this in relationship to dancing. Years ago, I made a clear and specific decision that I wasn’t interested in pursuing the more technical aspects of dance.  I’m a social dancer, I like to experiment and explore, going far outside the choreography and “normal” movement and shapes.  In more recent conversations, I realize that this is a an advanced approach to dance, if not a truly “complete” approach.  The greatest dancers are those who challenge themselves technically, as well as artistically, and I’ve long since left the road to technique.

I made this decision because dance is one of the only places in my life where my brain is OFF.  The minute I start concerning myself with technique (Am I a fast enough spinner?  Are my arms straight?  Am I pointing my toe enough? Are my shine patterns symmetrical?), I am out of my heart and body and into my head.  I’ve got enough technique and body control that I can forget about it and simply enjoy the music, movement, and connection with my partner.  THAT is what I crave in dance – not greater technique or an extensive repertoire – even those things are wonderful.  This is what I thought I could transfer into my writing, this sense of being grounded enough in the technical that I could focus solely on the story.

Because I have a solid grounding in writing technique, even if it is largely informal, I thought I had a decent chance at putting together a story people would want to read.  I wasn’t naive enough to think it would be perfect, but I did feel I was competent.  As of today, that feeling has entirely evaporated.   I realize this is probably a normal part of the process for any writer, but I am keenly feeling my lack of formal training, experience in creative writing and storytelling, and in the craft itself.  I’ve realized that the “how” of storytelling – all the decisions about timeline, details, organization, setting (you know – all the things that make up a story) – is not some magic combination of luck and brilliance, it is grounded in technique and exposure and work work work.

I’m not sure I was arrogant when I began this project but I definitely didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Today, my lack of confidence is showing up as “what made you think you could do this?  you don’t know shit about writing anything other than program outlines and lesson plans?  how could you be so disrespectful of all those people who have spent years learning the craft by thinking you could just sit down and pound out something decent – with no experience or training?  who do you think you are?”

I realized recently that I have several well-known, well-respected authors and storytellers in my bigger circle of acquaintances and I cringe when I think about my arrogance.  They’ve spent *years* working and perfecting their crafts and I think I can come along in a few months and produce a top quality piece of work?  Even though I’m posting this online, I’m kind of hoping none of them read it (I’m pretty sure none will) – I don’t want them to know how clueless I really am.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this feeling, this terrible and crippling lack of confidence, is another obstacle to overcome, another block on the road to shipping.  It’s an unexpected and unfamiliar feeling – this lack of confidence with regard to writing, with regard to work.  I’ve been confident in my ability to complete, to execute, to ship, for years and years.  Even when I was unemployed and desperate, I was still able to scrabble together enough gigs to limp along – I was still able to make things happen.

But I can’t “make” this happen, and that is an unknown, uncomfortable feeling.  I can’t brain-muscle my way through, force the words I know are “right,” or build an outline and follow the bread crumbs backwards.  None of those things are working, and they’re the majority of my toolkit.  My unconscious competence isn’t unconscious anymore, and my skillset needs to change and grow.  I’m afraid that learning what I need to learn (or think I do) will take too long, that I’ll never get it done or the story will no longer be relevant.

As I typed that, my head realized that it’s nonsense but my heart still feels afraid and worried.  I drew this a week or two ago, on a really really bad day.  Today isn’t that bad and writing this post helped.

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The Way Forward

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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Is this.  This is the first picture of my manuscript, such as it is.  My friend Cindy told me that this is what they all look like in the beginning – highlighted, penned, tabbed, glued, taped, and post-it-noted everywhichway.

When I began thinking of writing a book, I had no idea what that process would be – emotionally, logistically, physically, mentally – none of it.  I’d never written anything longer than 20-25 pages (grad school, obvs) and ended up not even writing a thesis.  But the feeling that this is the right path, the way forward, was never in question.  This has happened before – where the choice is a given, but the path is unseen – and it has always proven harder, richer, and more meaningful than I could have imagined.

In a way, this piece of writing is the thesis I never wrote.  I didn’t write it when I finished school, but the desire to write about peace education, a pedagogy of peace, has driven me for years.  Now, I have what I didn’t have then – experience.  Finding the academics is the easy part.  Putting them into a practical, useful context is the more difficult, almost impossible part.  Without the experience of the last several years, I would have just been another idealist producing a precious piece of writing that had no deep grounding in reality, or in anyone’s lived experience.

Now, though, I’ve been able to experience, to feel and live so much of the theory, and see what makes a difference and what doesn’t.  I’ve felt for years that I had something to add to this field, and I’m overwhelmed every time I go back and read some of the pieces I’ve written.  That may sound narcissistic, but I’ve never had the experience of channeling the creative, then going back and saying “did I really write this?” because surely nothing that profound came from my mind…

It’s not always easy – there are times where I hear someone else talking about something similar, or saying something incredibly articulate and thoughtful, and I think “What do I possibly have to say to add to that?” But I know that self-doubt is part of the process, and the important thing is to keep working regardless of the monkey blathering in my ears.  So I look at this picture often, and think about how hard the last few years have been.  If I went through all that so I can be here, now, creating this piece of work – there’s no way but forward.