Day 5 of #1000wordsofsummer 2023
If you’re just joining us, you can start today. Here are the archives where you can find the first four days of letters, and here’s an FAQ. 100% of this month’s donations go to charity so please consider subscribing.
Today you will write 1000 words. Because you want to feel wild and unfettered and free to explore your ideas and your imagination. You want to feel like anything and everything is available to you because of your creative self. You want to just go for it already, let your mind travel anywhere it desires. You want to feel unrestrained. And writing 1000 words can do that for you. Make you feel that way.
Freedom. We want freedom. One thousand words at a time.
Today’s contributing writer is Sarah Thankam Mathews, the author of the thrillingly written All This Could Be Different, which was her debut novel and also a finalist for the 2022 National Book Award in fiction. NPR had a nice long talk with Sarah about the book while Susan Choi called it, “iridescent: with joy and pain, isolation and communion, solemnity and irreverent humor.”
I first met Sarah online, had heard great things about the novel, harassed her for a galley, and then fell head over heels in love with it. It was fresh, funny, political, vibrant, affecting, and fully in motion. A year later, I met her in person on a street corner in Brooklyn, just after she had found out she had been nominated for the National Book Award. She is easy-going and open and exudes a specialness. I am glad I get to know her.
Today Sarah is talking to us about tricking your (stupid, beautiful) brain:
“There’s this 2014 film I enjoy called ‘The Duke of Burgundy.’ Eccentric and gauzy, erotic and stylish, it tells the story of an older lepidopterologist, Cynthia, and her young protege, Evelyn. Evelyn is studying lepidopterology, sure, but the film’s true focus is the sapphic Dom/sub relationship between the two women. As an aside: lesbian BDSM in the European countryside with glass-encased moths and butterflies everywhere? It’s giving PREMISE, honey.
What is interesting to me about the dynamic in ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ is its deceptiveness, its slippery quality. Over time, you see fissures appear in this visually sumptuous gay power play. Cynthia is getting older, struggling with the absolute control Evelyn wishes her to exert. She throws out her back trying to move a trunk that Evelyn is supposed to coffin herself in nightly. ‘The Duke of Burgundy’ turns into one of the more interesting examinations of topping from the bottom – a situation where the sub begins to exert more and more control over the dynamic – that I’ve ever seen.
(This isn’t Letterboxd, I hear you muttering to yourself. I am here for encouragement, I am here for insight into creative writing, I am here for #1000WordsofSummer. What is this, exactly. Jami!! Come back!)
I am both entirely joking and entirely serious when I say that ‘The Duke of Burgundy’, for me, functions as an allegory for the relationship between me and my brain. At least half the time, my writing brain, I regret to say, is a recalcitrant sub. And I, its theoretical owner, feel often like a sciatic and unenthused domme. On the bad days, my brain tops me from the bottom, as Evelyn does Cynthia. My brain is disobedient, distracted, occasionally depressive, and wants to do anything but what it’s told. She wants short-term gratification; she invents long lists of things that she could be doing besides the writing, which is so often less generative of dopamine than Other Things. She is often, you might say, a very, very bad girl.
I can’t emphasize enough how much it’s helped me to name, with humor and joviality, this dynamic; to recognize, as my friend Pam once said to me, how much of writing stamina and writing longevity comes from tricking our stupid brains. Writing requires us to dive deep into the recesses of our minds, exploring uncharted territories of imagination and emotion. Our brains have to do an awful lot of work for us.
Get your ass over here, I tell my brain. It’s time to begin.
How might you trick your stupid and beautiful brain, capable of so much, possessing stories only she and you can animate and bring into the world? The tricking is needfully bespoke: every brain is different. Your task is to provide what works for yours: the correct proportion of perception, guidance, incentive, reward, discipline, authority.
For example, you might recognize a certain timidity on your brain’s part when faced with what Lydia Davis once called the tyranny of the blank page. In response and anticipation, you could write a series of beginnings and starting points for your project, or give false starts–little prompts that you intend to cut but that help you find your way into the story. Give your brain something to latch onto, a starting point from which to build momentum. By tricking your brain into thinking it's just a small task, you can bypass its resistance.
The list of things I do for my mutinous little cerebrum runs long: timers and long walks, choosing ambient music that fits the mood of what I’m writing, making spreadsheets and to-do lists during revision season, stacking small card-castles of reward and consequence. When I begin each new chapter of a novel project, I light a slim yellow wa-rousoku candle and try to get past the first page in the thirty or so minutes before it burns out. Sometimes I tell my brain that it’s a season of rest and reading and seeing people we love so as to recharge, that’s she’s earned a break from all that’s active and onerous. I have to take care of my baby, after all.
By asserting control over your beautiful, powerful, sometimes-stupid, occasionally misbehaving brain, you’ll unlock the full potential of your writing and embark together on your journey of self-discovery and creativity. And when all else fails, it is good to revisit the truth, together with your brain. That nobody makes us write, that there are a hundred other pastimes we could occupy our lives with, that we write out of many things, but most of all, desire.
You want this, you tell your brain. You want this so much. Your brain uncoils, goes slack and damp with surprise. Then clenches, pulses, glows. Goes to work on you.”
You want this so much! We all do!
Good luck today.