On Writing & Struggling

Yesterday a mentor of mine said the words "I call bullshit” to me. My first response was, unsurprisingly, the panic of an awakened ego. Ouch. The truth hurts.  Minutes before, I had said the words “I don’t have any place to write” as my answer to the question, Why aren’t you writing?  The conversation had started with me explaining I might not return for the second year of my Creative Writing MFA program, and together, we were trying to figure out why.

I started with a grocery list of reasons, ones you might give someone you know only in passing. It’s too expensive, I said. I don’t find my classes useful. I'm working too much. I'm not doing enough writing.

Yeah. That last one didn't fly. She called bullshit, and asked me what it was that I really wanted to do. Not just in regard to my grad experience, but in life.

In my life as a writer.

~

The idea that I might have a “life as a writer” is one that is still just beyond comprehension. My dad is a visual artist  - has never been anything but - and my mom is a nurse that, in another life, would have chosen to be a dancer. My parents have always supported my artistic endeavors. I count this as one of my many privileges. That said, I always imagined I’d end up doing something else. When my mentor asked me what I really wanted to do as a writer, my gut answer was simply, "To write."

I could take you through all the brilliant things she said, but there’s one that stuck. 

If you want to be a writer, you have to show up for your writing.

Y'all. The truth shall set you free. Almost every damn time I sit down to write, there’s a part of me that’s already halfway out the door. If I'm writing, I'm looking for an exit. A way out. Writing terrifies me. Don’t ask me why. I could give you answers, but none of them feel like truth. Not even to me. 

It's easy for me to not show up for my writing. Writing is uncomfortable. Writing is a place where I can see myself most clearly - when the dial on my subconscious mind is turned all the way up.  It's actually terrifying - laying out all the thoughts in your head and then handing them over to the world.

My mentor called bullshit because - I'm guessing- it takes one to know one. She's a writer too, which means: she's been there before, down that deep dark tunnel of self-doubt. She, too, has been crippled by fear that her ideas and imagination aren't good enough to live anywhere other than her own brain.

"Show up for your writing." I held the phone up with my shoulder and grabbed my notebook; scribbling the words down as if it were some kind of riddle. As the conversation went on, it became clear: This is not a fucking metaphor.  You literally have to show up at your desk, sit your ass down in a chair and say, "Okay brain. Let's hear what you have to say. I'm going to take notes."

~

Two years ago, I decided I was going to "be a writer."  This decision came to me after spending a weekend at the Pink Door Women's Writing Retreat- a [now exclusively POC] poetry writing retreat for women and gender-nonconforming ppl hosted by (and at the home of!) the brilliant and delightfully witchy poet-mother-bruja-badass Rachel McKibbens.

On the last day, Rachel brought all 40 of us out onto the lawn and instructed us to pair up with a partner. We were told to stand face-to-face, eyes locked, and to say to one another: “You are powerful, and your work is necessary." We were instructed not to respond immediately, to maintain eye contact and allow ourselves to simply receive the words. After a moment of silence, we all had to say back, “I am powerful, and my work is necessary.”

It is perhaps needless to say that this was one of the realest moments of my life. I was a weeping wreck afterwards, crying tears of joy - and relief - at being freed from the burden of believing the opposite of this truth, partly mourning for the self that had been waiting so long to hear it. 

I am powerful, and my work is necessary. I've repeated this phrase often to myself in times of distress, by which I mean, times in which I have become paralyzed by my own ego. I say ego here and mean: that voice in your head. That voice whose only language is fear. Fear of failing, fear of not having enough, being enough.

All of a sudden, I found myself saying these words and asking myself questions. "Me? How am I powerful? What makes me powerful? What does it mean to be powerful? What about my work is necessary? What is "my work?" Who needs it? Why?"

It's taken me years to clarify, but I've come to discover that my work is a journey towards consciousness. This is a lifelong journey. Lifetime work. I often get caught up in what it is that I'm "supposed to be doing," what it is that I'm "going to do," when the truth is: What I'm [already] doing with my life is trying to figure out the best way to live it.

I'm one of those woowoo blackgirlhippies who believes we've been placed here by an incomprehensible cosmic intervention in order to fulfill a divine purpose. (Real talk: YOLO was my actual mantra for like, at least two whole years.) So many of my choices are guided by the idea that I only get to occupy this body in this lifetime once, so I might as well go for it. After this, well, is after this.

I have to remind myself often that everything I do in this lifetime is a journey towards consciousness.  What I mean by that is: I'm just trying to get free and to do so publicly so that other people might see me and give themselves permission to do the same.

The first part of getting free, for me, is getting past fear. Not being fearless, but being brave. It's taken me a long time to understand what it means to be brave. I'm still figuring it out, but I've learned that it's just simply doing it afraid. 

The biggest threat to artists is myth that our work is not necessary. (Don't even get me started on what happens when you add in the words woman, queer, and/or POC to the mix.)  Every time I sit down to write, the entire time I'm writing, I hear a voice in my head saying, "Huh? This doesn't even make sense. Where is this going? This sounds like shit. Why are you writing this? Who cares?"

It's exhausting, to say the least. When my mentor says "you have to show up for your writing," I think she means: you have to show up for that discomfort.  Being brave is all about giving yourself permission to struggle. Because struggling is the work. The actual definition of struggle is "to make forceful or violent efforts to get free of restraint or constriction.  

...If not making forceful efforts to get free, then what am I doing?

~

A friend that I've known since high school just finished the first year at her MBA program. When talking about how the hell I plan to make any actual money in my life, she said, "If you want to start a business, you have to provide a product or service that fills a need."

The thing about being a writer is... there's a whole world out there that tells you that your voice isn't necessary. That what you're doing is extraneous. That it's some kind of luxury. Part of the work, then, becomes convincing yourself that what you're doing is powerful and necessary.

I'll wrap this up, because I think you get the point.

This Ira Glass video keeps popping up on my newsfeed. Basically, he says the only way to become a writer is to write. To keep writing.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: Here I am. Okay?  

I'm trying.

Jamila Reddy