I haven’t written anything in over a week. I was afraid this was going to happen, that I’d declare that I was writing again and not be able to write. I’m afraid I’d have something to say and be too scared to say it. I’m afraid that no one will care. I’m afraid to get into it – the space in my head and heart where my writing comes from – and not be able to get out. And all these fears swirl around and around until I can barely think, let alone write.
I keep telling myself to just write and stop worrying. But it’s like a TV playing in the background – you can hear it and try to ignore it, but you know you’d prefer silence. So it is with the voices, the worries, the fears. Maybe this is normal. How would I know? I was twenty-two years old and in a community of writers in graduate school, and never worried about fear or audience or who I was as a writer. I was just trying to pass my classes and do a bit of writing (and by a bit, I mean a bit – I didn’t realize then I should be writing like it was my job).
Back then, I was writing poetry because it’s what I knew to write. I had been scribbling poems into journals since I was a teenager wrestling my emotional life and feeling like there had to be more. By the time I was finishing college and deciding what to do next, continuing on to pursue creative writing seemed as good as anything else. While in college, I wrote about ten poems total, all of which went into my grad school application. Somehow, despite only applying to one program about twenty minutes from home, I got in. Then, the only time I wrote anything was when I had to.
To be fair, it was before the internet truly exploded and writing online was commonplace. Otherwise I would have been writing all the time in a live journal or some other online space. And maybe it wouldn’t have been poetry, but it would have been something. As it turned out, poetry didn’t hold my heart quite like creative nonfiction, but I found that out too late and stuck it out with poetry because by then I had a formula and had circumvented the hard work of actually writing. I’m sure that’s not what you wanted to hear, that I was a lazy writer and had figured out how to do the bare minimum. Maybe I’m short changing myself because it felt easy. Maybe I was a good poet and lost my passion for it. I don’t know.
What I know is that having a master’s degree in creative writing gave me some street cred and a certain level of confidence to keep writing. All of it was quickly deflated when I left the safe bubble of my writing program and went out into the world. I had jobs editing and writing and teaching, but I was never doing the work I wanted to do. When I tried to write something true, I’d get all jammed up and quit. That was often the problem – not knowing how to proceed when I hit the wall, feeling all the self-doubt and letting it win. (And these are problems I still deal with. Where’s my magic bullet?)
When I started blogging, it seemed safe. I didn’t have to get into the deep interior space that made me a writer. I could keep things on the surface and use all my writing tricks. I could call myself a writer without having to do any excavation in my heart. Win-win. Once I started taking pictures and figured out I loved photography too, I had all the loopholes I needed. Let’s make writing as easy as possible and throw everything behind taking a wordless photograph. Great idea.
The thing is, I’m good at photography. That made it easy to hide behind. I tried to make it my everything, put all my eggs in my photography basket, but I knew it would never replace the words, words I knew were inside me, threads I knew would someday need to be teased out. During all of this, I went to counseling. Several times. I dealt with my complicated past, my childhood and my difficult relationships with my parents, and found through the years that I’d deal with them again and again. I always thought I’d end up writing a memoir about my terrible childhood and I better figure it out and get to the other side (where it didn’t hurt anymore) before I could write about it. Here’s the dirty little secret: I’m still not over it. Things still come up. I try to deal with it. I lament that I’ll never be healed and healthy and whole, but it’s a process and it just might never be a complete one. Does that mean I can’t write? I certainly hope not.
What it means is that I have to figure out how to write despite not being whole. It means I have to wrestle my fear and have enough faith that I’ll get to the other side. And maybe I have to believe that writing will be part of the healing process for me. Still, I get so strangled by my own fear that I literally can’t breathe. My stomach hurts, and I’m likely to climb into my bed and cry until I’m floating away in a sea of tears.
And what am I afraid to say? I’m afraid to say that my faith is weak, that my father smashed it to pieces, that he told me terrible things about myself and I believed him, that he told me terrible things about God and I believed them. I’m afraid to say that I struggle almost all the time with my emotions, that they often leave me feeling alone and drowning, and that I’m a terrible sleeper, which only exasperates things. I’m afraid to say that I’m trying so damn hard every day and it never feels like enough, that I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to be a mother with no role model, that I’m still figuring out how to work from home and take care of my family, that I only work about ten hours a week and most of the time it feels like more than I can bear, that I sometimes I love the work that I do, but often I’m deeply ambivalent about it. I’m afraid to talk about the things in my head, deep things that maybe no one else thinks about, my fears and worries, my questions and doubts, how to make meaning out of life and how to keep going when it all feels meaningless. I’m afraid that I’m no expert in anything except uncertainty and the way I deal with it is by drinking red wine and exercising as hard as I can and often walking around feeling like there’s something wrong with me. I’m afraid to be found out as a phony.
They say when you bring things out into the light, they aren’t as scary as you think. Even as I type all of this, I can hear the voices in my head start: Everyone else feels this way too. They’re dealing with it. Why do you think you’re special? No one cares. And maybe some of that’s true, and maybe it’s not. Just last week, I googled how to deal with your critical inner voice and ended up blubbering in my bed about all the terrible things my dad used to say to me. I wrote each of them in my journal, drew a line across the page, then wrote a corresponding phrase for each one, something I can tell myself when the voices start: I am good enough. My thoughts and feelings are valid. I am doing my best. I don’t have to prove anything. I am not alone. I memorized the list, then whispered the simplest prayer I know, “Thank you, Jesus.”
I want to be a writer. I want to keep digging in, digging down deep into the depths of my heart, and writing about it. Here’s what I believe I’ll find: Something good, something true, something beautiful. That we’re all struggling with the same things. That we all want to feel loved and accepted for who we are. That we all have a complicated past and that we’re complicated people. That we have questions and doubts. That the uncertainty of life can be overwhelming. That we want to believe, at the end of the day, that we’re going to be okay. And one more thing: That God is bigger than all of this and even weak faith, faith that’s sometimes barely hanging on by a thread or that’s tossed aside like a child’s stuffed animal only reached for when the world feels scary, can grow from a tiny seed into something larger and sturdier than a seed could ever imagine being.