Monday, September 4, 2023

on writing

Ever since I was a little kid, there has been a distinct separation between the inside and the outside. And at some point the world of the inside and the world of the outside switched places. 

The outside used to be the dark parts. The outside was things that happened, most of which I did not have language for. The things on the inside were arts and crafts, my friends and pets, girl scouts, making up dances. On the inside, I was all kittens and rainbows. 

Even when i was a kid, I knew there were shadows at the edges of things, but I tried to ignore them. It's like when you were little, and you knew there was a monster in your bedroom, but you were too scared to move. So you pulled the blanket over your head and tried to be so, so still. That totally works for the monsters that aren't really there, but it never, ever works for the ones that are. Even if the inside and outside have switched places, the monster is still the same. 

Ever since first grade, the bridge between the inside and the outside was writing. When I was small and I didn't have the language for my experiences, I wrote scary stories about camp outs. I wrote about haunted houses. things like that. 

But when I got a little older, and I had the language for my experiences, everything changed. The things that happened on the outside were now on the inside. I stopped writing stories and started hiding everything in the abstract space of poetry. And the weird thing about poetry-- at least the thing I think is weird about poetry-- is that it can pull a person in and push them away at the same time. It mirrors the dichotomy of the inside and the outside. 

Writing is the expression of the outside pulled in. It is a way to name, to braid the parts that unraveled. To tell the story of what it looks like to be in those dangerous spaces when you have nothing but a blanket to pull over your head. 

This expression is safer-- for me -- in poetry. Fiction demands that a writer be brave. In poetry, you can "tell the truth but tell it slant," just like Dickinson said. But that's transparent in fiction. 

Whenever anyone talks to me about The Swallows, I instantly get weird. I don't do it on purpose, but the book itself feels like I accidentally said all of the things I'm most afraid of. 

When I wrote the book, my main goal was to get Pearl through it. To see her and Benny through to the other side, as safe as I could make that happen. It was more than I had ever done for any of the other heroines I had ever written into my stories. If you've read my other stuff, you know this. My girls never get through anything. They're always devoured by the circumstances of their poverty, of their family lines, of the things that pushed them out onto the road.

I thought Pearl was different, and in a lot of ways she is. She is probably a fuller version of who is meant to be there. 

I finished The Swallows last Thanksgiving. I remember waking up at 3 am to write and being done with it. I didn't write for a year. and even now, I don't feel like a writer. I'm in this strange place where I'm collecting ideas, but I haven't been able to put them anywhere. Part of it, of course, is the way I feel I am bulling though the happenings of my life. My best quality is my ability to recover and keep going. I'm not sure if this is a quality of youth or an actual part of my personality. I will know soon enough.

One year to the day that I stopped writing, I started journaling again. I think the journaling is helping me to put down some things I haven't wanted to write about, but none of it is creative. Not even close. 

Tim thinks I put the idea of being a writer on the mantel and look at it, like I never see it as a part of who I am. That might be true. It's that dichotomy. He says that I need to write about myself. He says I need to write about my childhood, growing up, those kinds of things. 

I don't know. He's probably right. For a while I thought he wasn't. But after avoiding writing for a year and finally coming back to it, I am seeing that I am already writing about it, and it is probably what I am supposed to do. Right now, I am reading this really wonderful book called The Playwright's Guidebook, and Spencer has this part at the start about how some playwrights he has worked with have lost their minds over working on a play they were forcing. They were writing the thing they wanted to write and avoiding the thing they needed to write.

Maybe the need comes to nothing. But you have to get through the need in order to write the want. 

I guess, in the end, Tim is probably right. I need to write it out, even if it means nothing. 

However, tonight I came up with an idea on how I am going to do this. And I think it is the structure and strangeness I need to balance out the dark parts and the beautiful ones. 

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