I have a window. Eight days where the days are mine, and the nights are mine too. Eight days were my glorious girls are off being glorious with their dad, and their laughter rings around this empty house like the distant jingle of goat bells up a far-away mountain. Eight days where I close my bedroom door so that even the cats can’t come in. The last eight days I have had up to 3 children and 2 cats a night in my bed, fighting for my duvet, and my head space. My body loves waking up to the sweat sandwich of a child suctioned to my skin, but my brain finds it rather crowded. My brain needs a little one-on-one attention right now, and not even the cats are getting in. Eight days to devote to the only other thing I crave more than the heat of my girls breath dancing with mine. Eight days to write. Eight days to dance to the tapping of my keyboard and see what melody plays out.
Of course, just as I crave my girls, they also drive me mad, and I can be found hiding in the toilet just to get a little moment. Unfortunately the bathroom lock is broken, and so even those moments are fleeting. And just as I crave writing, it also scares the bejaysus out of me, because here I have all this time and space, here I have eight days to write this burning banshee that is screaming inside of me in the form of a book, and I will wash the floor rather than face the prospect my words are not as wonderful as the book in my head is.
Like all writers I know, I have what is called the Crippling-Self-Doubt-Hebeejeebies.
Aha! But this time I know about this rampant condition. This time I am armed. I know I have this condition and know how much cleaner my house can be when I get the space and time to write and so I have two weapons in my armoury.
The first thing is, a cleaner. Yes, I called a website, and got my house cleaned. The floor is sparkling. I cannot clean it again.
The second thing is a letter. I came across this doing some research a while ago. This letter comes from the amazingly incredible series of Dear Sugar advice columns written for The Rumpus (they are not all about writing, but so worth reading). I printed this one out, and every time I have to face the blank page and I feel the fear, I read this letter. The girl that wrote to Dear Sugar (who was later revealed to be Cheryl Strayed, and the first book she is talking about here is Wild) was experiencing crippling self doubt and loathing. She believed that women writers all ended up depressed and suicidal (!). It’s lengthy and long but every word is worth it. The full version is here. But here are the bits that gets me going. This is my weapon:
But I was wrong. The second heart inside me beat ever stronger, but nothing miraculously became a book. As my 30th birthday approached, I realized that if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.
At the time, I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn’t have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with “intelligence and heart and lengthiness.” But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin wordshumilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned 35 a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.
We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer, and it’s especially true of writers who are 26. You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.
……How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.
So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.
And so I have 8 days ahead of me. There is no-one to follow me into the toilet, no floors to wash. Just eight days, my laptop, and me. Time to write like a motherfucker.