U is for Unwritten

UI am on a writing retreat as I type this. For the past two days I’ve been sequestered away with two very quiet and serious writers in a lovely home in a lovely valley. We’ve been very dedicated since we arrived, but I have to say I am having a hell of a time producing much. I need to write a paper for class by Saturday, and I am struggling. I can’t get the words out. My failure has nothing to do with lack of effort on my part. In my attempts to jar something useful loose, I’ve read books and scholarly articles, I have watched videos—some deadly boring (really, if you ever have insomnia watch a video of someone else conducting a counseling session). I’ve listened to relevant and riveting podcasts. Yet, I’ve only managed to squeeze out about 300 words. I am interested in the topic. I enjoy the class. But I’ve got a terrible block around this paper. I’ve even asked for an extension, a request about which I am ambivalent. Is it wise to extend my struggle or should I just grit my teeth and power through?

Perhaps I’m feeling resentful that all during my three-day writing retreat I have felt besieged by this paper. Rather than working on my more creative pursuits, I’ve been straitjacketed by academia. I’ve also been thrown off my game a bit because I haven’t been for a run since Tuesday and it’s now Friday. That, and you know how the digestive system can go awry when it leaves home for more than a day or two. Should I have stayed home this week? Would the words be flowing any easier if I were wrapped in the stifling yet familiar embrace of my normal routine? Doubtful. All quarter, each time I’ve sat down to write anything for either of my classes, I’ve felt this tightness, this overwhelming ennui, and a great urge to close my eyes for a nap. Yet, somehow I have managed to keep up, to crank out the papers and turn them in, complete and on time. Mostly they’ve received excellent feedback, and, upon rereading what I’ve written, I am struck by my ability to string coherent thoughts together, paragraph by grueling paragraph.

So, what gives? Why this epic struggle to engage with the material and shape it into a useful form this week? What am I resisting? I think part of the problem may be that I am emotionally engaged elsewhere—that is, my heart just isn’t in it. My subconscious is busy working on other more compelling issues. If I could write a paper on love and loss, obsession and compulsion, friendship and forgiveness, I would be nearly done by now. If I could write a treatise on the human heart, what drives us in life and love, I would ace this assignment. And even as I type these words, I realize that in a way, this is exactly what I am doing—

My assignment, for my Group Therapy class (it’s a class on how to lead group therapy/group counseling sessions), is to write a proposal for a group that I would like to lead. Since I began my Master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling last year, I have written a few papers about and done more than a little research on counseling transgender individuals. The group I am attempting to write a proposal for now is a transgender support group. I have all of my information. I know the material, the issues, the format, but I’m fighting a major battle to put it all together and get it all down on paper. Why?

I decided to step away for a bit. Stripped my bed. Did some laundry here at the retreat center. I took a shower. And that’s where I was when it hit me—I need to give this paper a more personal twist, breathe some actual life into it, make it less abstract, more tangible. But how? I’m not transgender. I am a cisgendered female (biologically the same gender I was labeled at birth) with no desire to change my identity. Oh sure, every now and then I think it might be awesome to have a penis, if only to experience the power and privilege the penis inspires. Like my occasional fantasy of taking one hit of heroin or meth to experience what must be an awesome high—I ponder the sensations that must accompany the penis. How must that feel? All those nerve endings concentrated in that one place, exposed, expectant, exquisite?

I don’t want to have a full time penis any more than I want a heroin addiction, but I am often misgendered, that is, I am mistaken for a man. Even though I have no desire to change my gender, feel no compunction to make an anatomical correction, I sometimes present as something other than the culturally accepted female norm. I am not tiny. I don’t wear makeup. I keep my hair short. I sometimes wear clothes purchased in the men’s department, but mostly I wear clothes made for women that don’t have ruffles, sparkles, bows, bright colors, or plunging necklines. I eschew high heels and dresses and pretty much anything tight, clinging, or revealing. Do these preferences make me less of a woman? The occasional stranger apparently thinks so.

Last summer I had an experience that brought home for me the fear and real dangers facing trans* folk. I was dressed to go for a run—bright orange racer back tank top, quick dry shorts (men’s since they are longer and don’t ride up as I run), socks, shoes, iPhone in my armband. I parked my Jeep at my favorite running spot, locked the truck, and headed to the bathroom. It was early, maybe 7:30 in the morning. As I opened the bathroom door, a voice behind me hollered something I didn’t quite catch at first. I turned around to find the owner of the voice standing about 20 yards away.

“Did you say something to me?” I asked, genuinely curious.

“Never mind,” he said with a surprised look on his face.

As I entered the women’s restroom and headed for a stall, the words he had yelled rearranged themselves and suddenly made sense: “Hey bro, that’s the women’s bathroom.” Ah, I realized as I sat down to pee, he thought I was a dude going in the wrong restroom. Nice of him to warn me, but how could he have possibly mistaken me for a guy in these tight running clothes? I’m not some thin, lanky runner. I have, shall we say, noticeable curves.

And then the fear settled around me. What if he thinks I am trans*? What if he wants to harm me? What if he realizes I’m a lesbian? Will he think he can do with me as he pleases? What if he hates gays and trans* people (or anyone on the LGBTQQIAP–jesus, that gets longer everyday– spectrum)? What if he is one of those guys whose masculinity is threatened by our very existence? I occasionally worried about running this sometimes lonely trail by myself, but generally shrugged my fears off as unfounded. Now, seeing myself through this particular lens, I felt more vulnerable than ever.

This vulnerability is the way into my paper for Group Therapy. This vulnerability is why the trans* counseling group needs to exist. Thanks for reading. I’m off to finish my paper now.

H is for Honesty (in Writing and in Life)

Write as if your parents are dead. –Anne Lamott

When I attended AWP last month, in nearly every session someone asked some version of this question: “How can I write my story without hurting the other people in my life?” Other versions of this question include something like the following:

“How do you deal with your parents getting mad?”

“What if your friends stop talking to you?”

“What’s fair game in story telling? When does my story stop being mine?”

“What can I write about my kids? My spouse?”

That’s usually when I got up to leave. I didn’t think I needed to hear this question rehashed and re-answered. I thought I knew the answers. I thought I had figured out this puzzle, solved this riddle. I  had spent many years asking some version of this same question. And though I feel like I’ve wrestled it to the ground over the past several years, somehow it keeps popping up.

All of the writing books and books on creativity that I’ve read in the past few months have addressed The Question: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Writing is My Drink, by Theo Nestor, Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Clearly this is a universal problem for writers, and obviously given the plethora of revealing, heartfelt, truth-telling memoirs, many authors have pushed beyond their fears. As Nestor points out in her lovely book, “the writers we really admire and adore are the ones who are willing to take a risk and say what most wouldn’t dare.”

But how do they do manage?

Here’s the basic, most essential bottom line for me: if I don’t write it, I will never have to worry about who reads it. In other words, there is a huge long process to be navigated before anyone will ever read my writing. If I just stay in the place of worry and keep all of my words inside for fear of being judged or misunderstood, I will never be a writer.

The fear of never being a writer trumped my fear of what people might think about me and what I wrote. I managed to set aside my worries about offending people and settled in to write. After all, I started in a memoir writing class where no one knew me—fuck it if they didn’t like what I wrote. I had nothing to lose but my nagging fears of never being a writer.

But they did like what I wrote, and their liking my words, their positive feedback, and their support bolstered my courage. A few of us in the writing group still worried about our parents in particular, but we banded together, encouraged one another, and urged each other to write our truths and worry later when we actually had a publisher about who was going to be offended.

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I have so many fears about speaking and writing my truths—paramount among them was the notion that somehow I would tell my story wrong, that I would put my story down and someone would say to me “nuh uh, that did not happen.” I hardly felt strong enough to write my story, let alone defend it. I had no idea when I started writing my memoir that I would find myself in that position so soon. When I wrote the essay “Body Language” that eventually appeared in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, I thought I was just writing another chapter in the long slog that was my unpublished memoir. So, I was able to tell my truths without worrying too much about who might read them. But then, the piece was accepted into the anthology and publication became a reality.

Two of my fears came to pass, sort of. The piece was picked up by The Friendly Atheist, a blog on patheos.com and reprinted in full. I had steeled myself for my family’s reaction to what I wrote, but I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with the online comments. My mom could accept my truths about my experiences growing up, but she recoiled from the commenters who labeled her as cruel, who said she should be punished.  The saddest result for me was that she felt like she couldn’t come to any of the readings for fear she’d be judged.

The other thing that happened was that my brother, having read my essay, looked at me and said “did we grow up in the same family? I do not remember any of this.” For a moment I assumed he was challenging my version of events, but what I realized after I pondered it (and talked to my therapist about it, of course) was that yes, in fact, we had grown up in different versions of the same family. As the eldest sibling, by four years, as a girl child, I did have a different upbringing than he did. He was 14 when my story took place—there was no reason in the world he would have known about the events. It was, truly, my story to tell.

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The other part of this truth-telling, honesty, being vulnerable on the page thing is something I am still coming to grips with, and that is the creation of a persona. I am not the narrator of my story. The narrator is the narrator. In Still Writing, Dani Shapiro addresses the notion of exposure toward the end, in a section entitled, fittingly, Exposure. She tells the story about a woman who approaches the author Frank McCourt and says to him “I feel like I know everything about you!” to which he responds “Oh darlin’, it’s just a book.”

Shapiro goes on to explain that yes, while we may feel like we are flinging open the doors of our lives to the world, we are actually choosing what to reveal. We are not, she reminds us, writing a diary or stripping naked.  As much as I feel like I leave a good portion of myself on the page, there is so much more that I do not write about. I employ, in the words of my therapist, discernment. Occasionally to make a point I will use hyperbole. I become a character. The people in my life become characters: The Little Woman, The Children, My Therapist. Crazy Neighbor Lady.

Telling a greater truth by manipulating the day to day unfolding of our lives is a tricky concept, one that gets almost as much attention as how can we write our stories without offending anyone. But as Nestor points out (sort of via Vivian Gornick): “The story is the magic that the writer creates out of the events, the brew of insight, metaphor, and voice that renders the events meaningful.”

No writer I know wants to sit on Oprah’s couch and go through what James Frey went through. But there’s a difference between lying (passing off as truth what never actually happened) and rearranging the facts in order to better tell our stories, to better get at the larger truth, the Take Away.

Honesty in story telling is a dance. As writers, I think we seek connection with others through our words, and we can only authentically connect when we make ourselves vulnerable but we can’t just vomit our emotions on to the page. We have to shape, add, subtract, mold. We have to use our imaginations, as Nestor points out, to forge a coherent, universal story out of our personal experiences.