Writing Trouble: A Few Words on Distractions and Truth Telling

Every writer I know has trouble writing. —Joseph Heller

Nearly every night I sit down with my laptop and open it to a blank Word document, convinced that this is the night I will begin my masterpiece, my opus, my version of the Great American Novel. And then I get distracted: laundry, dinner, cats, a funny lump behind my earlobe, the stupid TwoDots game on my phone. Words with Friends. Something. Anything to keep me from putting my thoughts down. There are a million things I will do before I finally succumb to that little voice, that growing voice, that roaring voice, the one that pushes and pulses behind my eyeballs, that makes my heart pound faster. I have to, at some point, listen to that voice, give in to that voice or I will explode. Maya Angelou is credited with saying that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside. I agree.homework

Another trouble with writing, with being a writer, particularly if one is a writer of nonfiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, is that telling the truth, or our version of the truth, is bound to offend someone. Probably we will offend someone close to us, a family member, a good friend. And we may throw lots of other folks under the bus—there’s an entire cast of characters from which we can choose: teachers, grandparents, doctors, lawyers, therapists, the barista who forgot your regular order. The waiter who seated you near the kitchen. Really. This is an endless list.

And there are so many reasons we need to keep the peace with all of these folks. We need them to like us. And, what we often forget is that the chances of anyone actually reading what we write is slim. Oh sure, our writing group might, and a teacher, if we’re in school. But Grandma? Uncle Ed? The barista? Not likely. So, really, this is not a good excuse to suppress the urge to write.

Never mind the friends and relatives, though. When I think about writing, about what I want to write, an overwhelming sense of responsibility immobilizes me. I can’t write anything frivolous, I tell myself. What I write should be Serious. And Thoughtful. Well considered. And I should have read as much as possible on the topic. I don’t want to offend anyone. What I write should have a moral, a takeaway, but subtly. I don’t want to be too didactic. My prose should be poetic and authentic. My metaphors had better be spot on. My grammar and punctuation, impeccable. Most importantly, I don’t want to be misunderstood.

mass-distraction-rrv33nNo wonder I freeze up. No wonder I’d rather play gin rummy on my iPad.

But no more. This year I resolve to write the stories. And if you happen to be a character in my life, oh well.

You’ve been warned.

The Road to AROHO Day 8: Feel the Fear and . . . Well, Just Feel It

I am an introvert. Being around lots of people exhausts me. And it terrifies me. I am not one for idle chit chat, not very good at the “getting to know you” niceties that appear to be second nature to most other people. I knew this about myself before I set out on this adventure, yet I was unprepared for the ferocity with which my inner introvert roared into action these past two days.

Even though I am 50 years old, whenever I am in an unfamiliar place with a lot of unfamiliar people, I am transported back to my childhood, back to the days of trying to fit in at yet another new school, trying to look just right, say just the right thing, have just the right clothes, hair, shoes. I look longingly at the table where the cool kids sit and with dread at the empty table where my seat awaits. I keep my head down in the hallways and my hand down in the classroom.
My instinct is to run away and hide, to pull my head back into my protective shell and wait.  I figure if I’m going to feel invisible, I may as well just be invisible. At least if I’m hiding, I can understand why no one approaches me, why no one sits at my table, why no one reaches out. If I am truly invisible, then I am in control. If you can’t find me, you can’t ignore me.
These are my primal instincts. My educated, intellectual self knows better, knows that if I put myself out there, if I reach out, I will be met half way. Knowing this does not make it any easier. It does not matter that I am 50—I still feel five, ten, 15, 20, 25. I still feel too young to understand, like life is still a mystery that will resolve and clarify as I get older. When I do not have my friends, my family, my community to reflect back to me who I am, I am nothing. I am empty. I am older, but I do not understand.
Virginia Woolf
What frightens me most about this experience is that even when I do reach out (and I have), even when I have intelligent and reciprocal conversations with others here, I feel like my words are as silent as I am invisible, that my mouth opens up and the language evaporates, unintelligible and indecipherable. Even as others respond, at that moment I do not feel seen or heard, just empty and alone. 

Evidently, this is my work, to welcome the fear, the loneliness, to invite them in and set them a table, and wonder what they have to teach me. Before great light, darkness. Before great relief, great pain.

On the Road to AROHO: Feel the Fear (and the Heat) and Go Camping Anyway

Good late morning from Twin Falls, Idaho, Dear Readers.  I’m about a third of the way to my destination, Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM.

Let me just start by saying that if you’re in menopause and experiencing random and frequent hot flashes, camping in the desert southwest might not be the best way to travel the 1700 miles between Bellingham, WA and Abiquiu, NM.  Too bad I didn’t consider this issue before I was pitching my tent in 102 degrees last night.
I’ve been planning this trip for several weeks, but somehow camping in the heat didn’t really cross my mind. Perhaps because I’m a PNW “blue-tarp” camper. Whenever I think about camping, all that comes to mind is rain and cold, wet sleeping bags and damp fires that never quite get started.
Nonetheless, I had a somewhat satisfying camp experience last night—I managed to get some sleep, at least until some Muslims pulled in around 1 a.m. and started cooking goat.  I kid you not. I listened to these two guys speak in a language I did not recognize before some English speaker started talking to them. As I lay there not sleeping and cursing their bad campground manners, I learned a lot about middle eastern cooking and spices, the Muslim response to 9/11 (at least these Muslim’s responses), and why these two young men were going to college in Idaho.
Ironically, the fact that two middle easterners were camping in the remote hills outside of Boise actually made me feel better about my own choice to camp alone. If they weren’t afraid, I wouldn’t be either (though I did sleep with my hunting knife within reach). I have to say, there was so much unsolicited consternation about my decision to drive to New Mexico that my confidence started wavering soon before I left, and as I looked for a suitable camping spot last night, I had to beat back my fear.
I thought a lot about Cheryl Strayed’s adventures in her memoir Wild—what she had to say about Fear came rushing back to me as I set up my camp and perused my surroundings:  I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.” 
So, fear conquered, at least last night. I woke up partially refreshed, made myself a thermos of coffee and hit the road.  I stopped at a payphone to check in with my sweetie since there was no cell service, and steered the Jeep toward Salt Lake City.
This morning I thought I might get a hotel for the night, but as of this writing, I’m not so sure.  If I can camp in 102 degrees in remote Idaho, surely Utah has even better experiences to offer.

Some random observations: it is far too hot to take the top off the Jeep which is rather disappointing. I have to stop every hour or so and scrape the dead bugs from my windshield.  Gas is getting cheaper the farther south I go. Drivers here are much more polite and aware than drivers in Washington State (i.e. they move over and don’t hog the left lane on general principles). The landscape is very dry—many side of the road fires, and one very large one near my campsite last night (extinguished the day before I camped).

Feeling the Fear

Writing terrifies me–the act of putting my deepest feelings and thoughts on paper and then offering them up to the world makes me ill.  At the same time, these same acts invigorate and empower me. This dichotomy resonates with so many other aspects of my life that I just have to hold my nose, squeeze my eyes shut, let go, and brace myself for impact.

Please check out my writer’s webpage: http://pamelahelberg.com where I am practicing overcoming my fears, one small bit of memoir at a time. 
My hope is that with time, I won’t have to hold my nose and squeeze my eyes closed, that I’ll be able to participate fully, my senses primed and ready to welcome what comes.
This story belongs to me. Others may write their own.