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.

Unpacking the PNWA Experience

I feel like I just returned from four days on the moon instead of from four days at a writer’s conference at the Sea-Tac Hilton, so completely was I transported out of my daily existence. Even though I joined the Pacific Northwest Writers Association a few months ago with an eye toward the conference, I signed up at the last minute, still unsure if I was ready, unconvinced I could learn anything new about writing. But a small voice niggled in the back of my mind, and I’ve been working on listening to the voice instead of dismissing it as I’ve done most of my life.

I’m so glad I listened. I could not have imagined a richer four days. The workshops were all excellent—each one exceeded my expectations. The other writers were open and supportive, friendly, and talkative—all of which surprised me, I guess because writers are notoriously introverted (well, at least I am), and since there were NY agents and editors at this conference, I expected a sense of competitiveness.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. I sat down at the table with the Memoir sign and within 10 minutes I was joined by three other women. We took turns sharing our stories and giving each other feedback, all instant compatriots linked by our love of words, all of us with four incredibly different stories.

I sat in a workshop called “First Page” in which attendees submitted the first page of their book to be read aloud by a volunteer. As she read, the panel of judges (5 agents/editors) were to raise their hand at the point where they would stop reading (this to give the writers in the room a sense of what catches an agent or editor’s attention or makes them hate one’s work). Once three hands were up, the volunteer stopped reading and the panel members told the audience what made them stop reading. The first handful of first pages didn’t get very far before the hands shot up. Common complaints from the panel included confusing openings, too much narrative, too much tell and not enough show. I began to regret handing over my first page—I wasn’t sure I could handle my work being judged like this. But then, a couple of pages got read all the way to the end and the panel had kind words. I started feeling better.

And then. Then I saw the volunteer reader holding my page (I could tell—it was double-sided). I started sweating (beyond the “normal” hot flashes I’ve been experiencing of late), my heart pounding. I entered that out of body orbit and I tried to pay attention as the volunteer read my first page. She got through the first paragraph and one hand was up, but the other panel members seemed engaged. Second paragraph—the one hand that was up seemed to flag a little (and honestly, this panel member didn’t seem to like much of anything). Other panel members were still listening, smiling even. And at the end, everyone applauded. The panel members complimented me on my clear writing, crisp language, and engaging story. The one male member of the panel said he wanted to know what happened to that little girl and felt for her and her dilemma.

Validation. I floated out of that workshop. What had been a casual decision to attend it at all turned into the most critical moment of the conference for me. People liked my story! Visions of publication danced in my head. Editors and agents will beg to represent me, I thought. And, in fact, all of the agents and editors I pitched to later that day invited me to submit my work to them for consideration, and I have since my return on Sunday.

But a few of the agents/editors I spoke with wondered what my “hook” was and how my story was relevant, and this question has me deep in thought as I work to finish my memoir which, for those who are wondering, is tentatively titled Co-Parent: How I Became a Divorced Lesbian Mother of Two Adopted Multi-Racial Girls in the Not So Gay 90s. I thought my hook was evident: same sex marriage is all over the headlines. What’s more relevant than a story about same sex divorce and custody? Still, a couple of these women asked why anyone would want to read my story, when it happened so long ago. Which makes me wonder . . . why do we read history? And how can I make my history more relevant?

Interestingly, the agents/editors who asked these questions were all of my generation—late 40s to late 50s—and those who were more enthusiastic were younger. And this disparity also has me wondering if those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, no matter how liberal we might be, still carry traces of homophobia with us in spite of recent cultural advances.

So, I’ve decided to crowd-source my “hook“—what will make my story appealing to readers outside of the narrow “divorced adoptive lesbian mothers” demographic?

I was heartened to find this Doonesbury cartoon in the Sunday paper—it made me feel that my story was indeed relevant, but I’m no Gary Trudeau. I need to convince agents and editors to take a chance on unknown me.

Imagine

John Lennon said it best:  Imagine no religion. It’s easy if you try . . . no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine.  I try to imagine what my life might be like had I not been subjected to fundamentalist christianity between the ages of 5 and 21.  Those 17 years more than any in my life shaped me indelibly. Those years of being labeled a sinner who would most likely face eternal damnation burning in hell still color my life. Even more than 25 years after I decided I could no longer subscribe to the tenets of christianity.

Last Wednesday evening,  I sat with a group of women, all writers, all of us contributors to Beyond Belief: Women in Extreme Religion, an anthology of stories about women’s experiences getting into, staying in, and getting out of fundamentalist religions:  Mormonism, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Scientology, the Unification Church, fundamentalist Christianity, and others.

Each of us read an excerpt from our story, and as we went around the room, a deep sadness overcame me (that and a not irrational fear that an angry god might smite us for talking smack about him). Sad about the potential wasted, the time wasted, the energy wasted—all the ways in which we’d been shamed, subjugated, stigmatized, separated in the name of god. Imagine growing up female and never feeling shame about being a girl, a woman. Never having to hide: our bodies behind burkas, our brains and intelligence behind our bodies. Imagine life as a woman without the imposition of religious constraints.

What could we have achieved, each of us, I wondered, had we been free to follow our natural impulses?  If we had been encouraged to embrace our talents and truths rather than forced to shut ourselves off from the world, to shut ourselves down, to hide our true selves because our religions taught us our very essence—our loves, our bodies, our desires, our thirst for knowledge–offended some made up god. Eventually, we all  managed to overcome the limits our various religious experiences imposed upon us, to come to an awakening, an awareness that we would never have a genuine life within the confines of these religions.  But what had our lost time cost us, I wondered?

What might we have accomplished if our  energies all those years had been channeled toward, say, science?   Instead many of us worried constantly about going to hell, expending our resources both literal and emotional, on impossible reconfigurations of our minds and bodies. What if instead of having to be vigilant against every carnal thought and deed, I could have spent those years, oh, I don’t know, learning to play the drums or studying computer programming? What if instead of worrying about proselytizing and “saving”  my neighbors, I had reached out across common interests and laid foundations for lifelong friendships instead of worrying my god would cast us all into the fiery pits of hell. Imagine.

As we each read our excerpts, sex emerged as a dominant theme.  So much time and effort expended in our struggles to come to terms with our bodies, our sex, our sensuality. Our natural way of being in the world.  Why, I wondered is religion so preoccupied with sex? Why so much devotion to not-sex?  What better way to control people than by creating fear about the most basic of human instincts?

I was at a writing retreat last weekend, in a workshop on writing about sex, and one of the participants posited how crazy it is that our (judeo-christian) culture prefers to pretend that “good people” don’t have sex despite all evidence to the contrary.  Religion’s powerful constraints spill out into culture and impact everyone, not only the believers, which is one of the most annoying and dangerous aspects of extreme religions: that misguided notion that there is only One Truth.

We only need to look at history (yesterday, two weeks ago, 500 years ago) to see clearly the evils perpetrated by extreme religions.  Where could all of our energy go if we weren’t fighting for rights that religious leaders want to take away? DOMA. The Inquisition. Joan of Arc. Matthew Shepard. A woman’s right to choose. Westboro Baptist Church.

What else might that energy have cultivated had it not been hijacked by the holy?

Imagine.

Inscrutable

The first thought I had upon hearing that Ruth was dead?  “Did I do that?” I had wished her dead for so long, and now she was. Colon cancer finally killed her. She’d fought it for years, on death’s doorstep one day, back on the treadmill the next. Deathwatch 2004 we called it initially, though she didn’t die until 2008. In death, now as she had in life, Ruth agitated me, inscrutable and maddening.  Even though we had never been friends, our lives were intimately entwined, and I often felt trapped in a relentless dance with her—the same steps over and over and over.

We were on vacation, Taylor and I, on our annual trip to the Oregon Coast when the call came, beckoning us home for the funeral.  Ruth cut everything short when it came to my kids. Taylor upset, because at 14 she thought she should have been contacted directly. Trust me, I would have preferred not to be the bearer of this bad news.

In my fantasies Ruth generally died in a car wreck. Her five-year-old van had over 300,000 miles on it. That van, full of toys and treats, her clothes, toothbrush, old woman shoes. Stuffed animals and children’s books. Sports equipment. Balls, racquets, running shoes. Games. She had a house of her own, but lived on the road, in between our home and hers.

I did not believe the cancer would kill her.  She seemed invincible, omnipresent, immovable.

How many times had I driven past the large wooden church on the corner and watched as black-draped mourners filed in? How many times had I wondered what unfortunate soul inhabited the casket being extracted from the back of the hearse?  I hadn’t been to many funerals in my life, just the expected ones, never for someone so much a part of my everyday life.   And never for someone I actively wished dead.

Now I tried to find a parking space so we could join the long black line into the church for Ruth’s funeral. I could barely keep my soul and body together as I prepared to confront the death of the woman who had hijacked my family. I kept reminding myself I needed to be there to support my children.

“I wonder if there will be a casket,” I said to Nancy, my wife, as I waited, not patiently, for the old people in front of us to hobble their walkers out of the parking lot.  I peered intently at the old couple, certain I recognized them but so many years had passed, I couldn’t be certain.

“I hope it’s not an open casket,” Nancy commented.  “She wasn’t much to look at on a good day.”

“She was such a scientist though,” I said, surprising even myself with my equanimity. “Maybe she donated her body to science. She loved taking those anatomy and physiology students to see the cadavers, though I can’t imagine her naked on a stainless steel gurney for some random college kids to carve on.  For a PE teacher and a coach, she sure had a fear of being naked in the locker room.”

I recognized Ruth’s profile well above the chrome rim of the casket as soon as we entered the sanctuary. Her faced looked weirdly green. I took a deep breath. The church and the people swam before me–I could feel my soul disengaging from my body.  Too many people from the past. Two of my ex’s longtime friends handed out funeral programs and attempted to usher people towards seats. I let Nancy take the program and tried not to make eye contact, still uncomfortable 12 years after our divorce.

 “Where are my kids?” I surveyed the pews, expecting to find Anna and Taylor sitting with my ex, Narcissa, their other mother, near the front, where the family usually sits.  They were as close to family as Ruth had.

“There’s Anna,” Nancy pointed to the middle row, front pew where Anna sat among a long line of her good friends and schoolmates.  Most of these kids had grown up with Anna, and some had been with her in school since daycare.  All of them knew Ruth, knew what she meant to Anna. I was relieved to see Anna was nearer to the foot end of the coffin and not directly in front of Ruth’s strangely green face.

“That’s weird.  Where’s T?”  I frantically scanned the rest of the church. “I can’t believe she’s not here.” I started to grow indignant on her behalf.  Figured, I thought to myself.  She always came second with Ruth–I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d been forgotten at home. 

I swooned (not in a good way) to recognize a cadre of Ruth’s former field hockey players–all mullets and capped teeth, awkward in their funeral attire.  I averted my gaze again and then bugged my eyes out at Nancy, our universal signal for “help me!”  She took my arm gently and guided me toward an empty pew.

 “Let’s sit down before your head explodes,” she whispered.  We sat a couple of rows behind Anna and her friends, and I thought I should say something to Anna, at least let her know I was here.  I stepped forward and put my hand on her shoulder.              

“Hey sweetie,” I began but had no idea what to say next.  She knew how I felt about Ruth, not the entirety of my pain, but she knew well enough I did not much like Ruth. How could I convey that in spite of my anger and disdain for Ruth, I deeply felt Anna’s hurt?  “I’m so sorry, honey.  I know she meant the world to you.”

Anna, just two months out of high school and within a week of going off to her first year of college just stared at me blankly.  I knew she must be completely unmoored by this.  In spite of my most vigorous efforts, Ruth had been her primary parent–her biggest cheerleader, her most unfailing supporter, her own personal chauffeur and ATM.  And, I suspected, the primary reason Anna had chosen a school a good seven-hour drive from home.  Anna knew it was time to start cutting the cord, but I knew she wasn’t prepared for Ruth to just be suddenly gone.  I patted her inelegantly on the shoulder and hugged the friends on either side of her, relieved to head back to my seat, on edge because I still didn’t see Taylor.

Nancy poked me when I sat down and pointed to the casket where a woman I did not recognize was trying to put a tennis racquet in Ruth’s cold dead hands. Ruth had donated much time and money to Anna’s high school tennis team over the past four years. Evidently, this woman had been charged with expressing the team’s appreciation.

We could not look away as she first positioned the racquet so it stuck out of the box as if Ruth might be holding it, and then as she rearranged it so the strings crisscrossed Ruth’s head and the racquet framed her green face.  Not happy with that look, she attempted to put it behind the body where it simply looked ridiculous.  The woman also had a folded pile of clothes, green sweats, and she attempted to wedge these in the coffin as well.  Nothing said goodbye like a good racquet and a set of team tennis sweats.  There was no way for the tennis accessories to look anything but weird and the woman mercifully gave up, but I do think Ruth would have admired her persistence.

Throughout the funeral service, I keep telling myself that I was young.  Too young and inexperienced to have known about Ruth.  And optimistic. Hopeful. Naïve. Twenty-five years of therapy later, I know that all I could do was leave, but not all choices are obvious or easy. I stayed.  We both stayed, hoping for a place in Narcissa’s life. Ruth provided the money.  I provided the sex. Ruth had history and everyone else could see that she was part of Narcissa.  I couldn’t have Narcissa without Ruth, but I didn’t see it.

Narcissa’s friends asked how the three of us were getting along.  I didn’t understand.  Why the three of us? Ruth’s part of the package, they said.  Narcissa didn’t warn me. She denied the truth if I asked. I learned slowly. Something about being in the 1980 Olympics.  I’d written a paper about that boycott.  I was a junior in high school in 1980. Narcissa a 29-year-old member of the US Olympic Field Hockey Team. Ruth her coach. Bitterness.  I didn’t know field hockey.

We started as an affair—sexual attraction, a broken relationship. And hard to get.  I dated a girl my own age then. Finished graduate school. What now? Two degrees in English.  I wanted to be a writer.  Narcissa found that sexy. The Girl My  Age wanted to be a writer too.  Whom to choose? I played it both ways.

When The Girl My Age started driving by my house at midnight and yelling obscenities from her car window if she saw Narcissa’s truck, when she started calling me at 1 a.m. asking if I were alone, I chose Narcissa. Stable, settled and starting a family.  I thought those were my dreams too. I often consider the path not taken. I did not count on Ruth.

Ruth raised my children. Her ubiquitous presence drove me out of their lives as she became a puzzle I couldn’t solve. There were too many pieces. I couldn’t see how it all fit together. I should have known, should have seen it that first night when she arrived, unannounced, immovable.  She never left. How could I have known?