How are we doing? Take a deep breath. I know we’re all fatigued. Wrap your arms around yourself and give a little squeeze. Do that one nice thing for yourself right now.
You’re still here, and so am I. And we have stories to tell.
Recently I was feeling on edge about my edits. I knew I needed to push things a little further, but I wasn’t getting there, I was circling. The pages felt suddenly foreign to me, far away from my present tense. It’s important to realize when you’re not being honest on the page. I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t telling the truth, either — but why? I realized I didn’t feel safe and secure at that moment. And I needed a sense of those two things in order to put myself in the place where I could be vulnerable.
I gathered up a stack of books that I return to all the time. Some of these books had even influenced earlier books I had written, and here I was, going back to them again for strength and inspiration. The authors had lived deeply in these pages in order to write them. Even if there were uncomfortable moments contained within the books, these stories were told so beautifully and openly that I took comfort in them. I felt as if I had gathered a group of old friends around me. I found the safety. But also, I found a challenge: I couldn’t lie to them, put anything past them. If they were honest in their words, I had to be honest in mine.
In particular I was having trouble writing about a tough time in my life, when I was grappling with housing instability. When I’ve written about it in the past, I had presented it as perhaps a worthy struggle, not one that I should be admired for, but one that I accepted as part of the life as an artist. What I had never contended with before – not truly – was how it had made me feel, the tenderness and vulnerability, and how it altered my perspective and how I engaged with the world. I wasn’t being as honest as I could be, because I had never asked myself to be.
I wrote into the shame. I wrote into the fear. I lived in that time again, reading what I had written about it years ago, and then cutting out parts of it, the bits that felt of false bravery, and then digging deeper into what remained. I made myself admit the truth. I don’t think I could have done it at the time. I was too busy surviving. We’re not always capable of being honest about ourselves in the moment.
But what is the point of writing a book of this nature, if I can’t push myself to open up those old wounds and bleed a little on the page? I needed to look at the spines of those books, see the names of the people who told their truth before me. It was because of them, these writers that I love and admire, that I arrived at a new place on the page this week.
The hardest part of looking back for me is the fear of lingering too long in the sadness of a particular moment. That’s why I needed to feel safe enough to know I would be able to return to the present. Just because I was sad once does not mean I need to stay sad forever.
What makes you feel taken care of and secure and nurtured? Can you commit to identifying it and returning to it when you need it? To putting yourself in the space where you feel capable of being honest and vulnerable in your work? What do you need to do to be able to scratch open that vein and allow yourself to access those feelings? Is it a book, an album, a meal, a hot cup of coffee? Is it a phone call with a friend? Maybe it’s a small embrace you give yourself, letting yourself know it’s going to be all right, you’re still here, still alive, with so many stories to tell.
You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans. Last week I donated to Southern Solidarity.